Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The soon-to-open expanded canal will—finally—accommodate the world’s gigantic freight ships. For now.
After decades of international controversy, lost fortunes, and the loss of thousands laborers’ lives, the Panama Canal opened in 1914, with two massive locks sized to accommodate the freight ships of the day. The debut of the “Big Ditch” marked a new era in the global economy, connecting U.S. Atlantic and Gulf ports to Asia, South America, and beyond.
Yet only a few short years passed before the U.S., which had shepherded the last years of the canal’s construction, decided that the canal was not large enough for the ships the country wanted at its ports. Construction began on a third set of locks in 1939. But as the costs of World War II stacked up, the project was abandoned.
More than a century later, the Canal has entered the final stages of a much-anticipated expansion, which began (this time) in 2007. New, 22-story locks were filled with water last month in preparation for flood testing by the Panama Canal Authority. The locks sit alongside the existing canal, and are designed to accommodate "Post-Panamax" vessels—which hold 5,000 to 8,000 containers, far outstripping the canal’s original size restrictions. Port cities from New York to Seattle are busily preparing for the expanded canal, and the tremendous cargo loads it will enable.
Though the third set isn’t yet complete, the Panama Canal Authority is already eyeing a proposal from China for a fourth set of locks, big enough for the “next generation” of freight shippers that hold up to 18,000 containers. But as container ships grow bigger by the year, so do labor and traffic challenges at ports and canals. Just how much larger can the freight industry get? When the third set of locks opens for business in April 2016, we’ll begin to find out.