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Panama Canal Expansion – The Future of Maritime Commerce

Panama Canal Expansion – The Future of Maritime Commerce

Last week, DOT’s Maritime Administration released the first of a comprehensive, multi-phase study forecasting the impact that the Panama Canal expansion will have on U.S. ports and our overall transportation system.

A key aspect to the study is an evaluation of our ports’ general “readiness” to handle the increased traffic that the widened canal will bring, both in cargo volume and vessel size.

For decades, the size of the Panama Canal has been a constraint on the maritime industry, which has been building ships that significantly exceed the canal's navigable dimensions, limiting direct international trade options, most especially for East and Gulf Coast ports of the United States.

Photograph of a container ship at Port of Baltimore   

But when the canal’s expansion is completed in 2015, the increased length, width, and depth of the locks will accommodate what the maritime industry calls "post-Panamax" sized ships, with their increased volumes of both containerized and bulk cargoes. This is a valuable change that will increase shipping efficiencies and reduce costs –major changes that create tremendous opportunities for the U.S. ports that intend to serve these new, larger vessels, including the potential to open new markets to U.S. goods abroad.

However, I use the term “intend,” because these larger vessels will only go where they can safely transit and be accommodated by shore side infrastructure. Currently, many U.S. ports are investing heavily in modernization, and this study provides further guideposts for handling these ships’ larger size and their increased cargo volumes.  

America's ports have proven themselves more than capable of meeting the dynamic changes of the global shipping industry, and I am certain they will adapt and thrive once the expanded canal is opened.

Photo of post-Panamax vessel in port

Why am I so confident they'll be ready for the challenge and the opportunity? Because the Obama Administration has already invested more in U.S. port infrastructure than any previous Administration, greatly improving our ports’ efficiency and capacity and enabling them to better compete in the global market.

And this report demonstrates what a wise investment that has been, while also highlighting the further infrastructure needs of our ports and waterways. I encourage you to take a look at the report and read about the upcoming opportunities and challenges, how we've prepared to meet them, and what work remains.

Given what we see still needs to be done . . . our task now is to go about doing it, and rest assured, we will.

Chip Jaenichen is Acting Administrator of the Maritime Administration.

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