July 28, 2014

Progress on the Panama Canal expansion

economy

Work at and near Gatun

The Gatun entrance

Progress on the Panama Canal expansion

paintings by George Scribner, note by Eric Jackson

The big photo opportunities in the Panama Canal expansion project have been and will be the arrival and movement of the enormous steel gates for the new locks, which were made in Italy. Meanwhile artist George Scribner, who works for Disney but comes from Panama and has been commissioned by the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) to chronicle the expansion job in a series of paintings, has been busy with his role in the project.

So how is the project going? We know it’s behind schedule, to be done sometime in 2015 is the latest word. Whether it’s over budget gets into semantic and accounting arguments, first of all because essential parts of the job are not counted as part of the project — as in for example, replacing the swing bridges at the Gatun Locks with a new bridge that allows people to travel between the east and west sides of the canal in Colon province. There is also compartmentalization within the project and a lot of what the ACP reports is about some part of the job, not the whole thing.

Technical uncertainties remain, the major ones including water usage as the locks are actually run and whether the use of tugboats within the locks chambers as envisioned is practically viable with the really large ships. If it turns out that the cross-currents in the new locks and the turbulence created by powerful tug engines cause the big ships to bang around inside the locks as some fear, then some retrofitting may be required, ranging from a slippery protective layer on one or both sides of the locks to slide ships along the wall, to tracks and engines for a new system of mules, to electromagnetic or other means to pull the ships through the locks. We probably will not know the answers to some of the technical doubts until the new locks are in operation.

The financial uncertainties are and always have been enormous. At the moment the canal usage is low because the world economy and thus maritime shipping is running well under full capacity. Several shipping lines, including the world’s largest, Maersk. have moved some routes away from the Panama Canal to avoid high canal tolls. Sooner or later there will be further  competition from arctic routes and perhaps South American container rail systems or a Nicaraguan canal. There are unfolding advances in materials and manufacturing techniques that may profoundly affect shipping. If, for example, with more advanced 3D printing the whole paradigm of a few industrial centers where there is mass production of things to be shipped all around the world is undermined, then that will affect maritime shipping and the Panama Canal. Futurists may think of these things, but it would be unwise for an ACP planner to pretend that these are known or even reasonably estimable quantities.

The reasonable assumptions are that sometime in the next few years the new locks will open, that there will be a few technological problems, that these problems will be fixed whatever the cost and that the sysem will ultimately work. The social, economic and environmental dimensions will remain the subjects of studies and arguments well after that.

Measurement

Measurement

Night construction

Night construction

 

Night work

Night work

 

Pacific locks

Pacific locks

 

 

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