As Panama Canal Expands, Change Ripples Across Atlantic - Opinion
Rodolfo R. Sabonge, a vice president of the Panama Canal Authority, sits in his office before a 30-foot map of the world. It isn’t the land that interests him, but the water. A huge glass window overlooks the canal that is his livelihood and his country’s future. The scene is the chaotic combination of destruction and construction that marks any massive project, midstream. The authority is overseeing the multi-billion-dollar expansion of the canal to make it wider and deeper so that larger boats can pass through.
Sabonge talks less about Panama than about other ports that will benefit from the new throughway. The canal, he knows, is just a means to an end, a shortcut from Point A to Point B, connecting two oceans. But where is Point B? US ports are scrambling for that distinction, as Northeastern and Southern states vie to be the destination point for the giant “post-Panamax” freighters that will carry goods from Asia directly to and from the East Coast of the United States. Panama’s expansion will serve to increase the size of vessels “whether US ports are ready or not,” Sabonge jokingly warns.
In the competitive shipping industry, there is a lot of talk about numbers: US imports and exports account for trillions of dollars, billions in shipping taxes are collected by states and localities, and US ports employ more than 3 million people. But there is only one metric that matters to ports east of the Mississippi: 50.
Scenes from the Panama Canal
“Fifty is the magic number,” a Coast Guard official told me. That is the depth in feet needed for a port to be able to successfully receive the post-Panamax ships that will, within 20 years, carry the vast majority of global commerce. Many ports that now rest at 43 to 45 feet are digging and dredging to get there; Norfolk, Va., is ready, as is Baltimore. New York and New Jersey are hoping, but they have to elevate the Bayonne Bridge near Staten Island to make it happen. Boston would have a long way to dig.
The United States is the only modern society that does not have a federal agency responsible for port strategy. Maritime planning is left to the states. The White House can merely promise expedited engineering review, as it did last month, of the port changes in New York, New Jersey, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, all trying to get to that depth of 50 feet, fast.