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PANAMA PLANS CANAL EXPANSION :: 09 March, 2007
In a national referendum in late October, Panamanians voted overwhelmingly to expand the Panama Canal. The project will construct a new set of three-step locks at each end of the canal, which are expected to double capacity along the canal and allow access by wider ships. The estimated $5.25 billion price tag will be paid by canal customers through a system of graduated toll increases. According to the Panama Canal Authority (ACP), this will be the canal's first major expansion since its opening in 1914.
"We spent years studying, researching, and preparing, and we are ready," said Ricaurte Vasquez Morales, chairman of ACP's board of directors and concurrent minister for canal affairs. "This project will be done efficiently and transparently."
The larger locks—1,400 feet long, 180 feet wide, and 60 feet deep—and new approach channels will accommodate post-Panamax ships. The new locks will use rolling gates instead of the miter gates currently installed on the Panama Canal, and will use tugboats instead of rail locomotives to position vessels. A system of water-saving basins built adjacent to the new locks will operate by gravity to raise and lower ships, reusing 60 percent of the water in each ship transit, the ACP said. The technology eliminates the need for constructing dams, which would flood or displace communities along the canal's watershed. The project will be sited to use a significant portion of excavations started by the United States in 1939 for a third set of locks. That work was suspended in 1942 when the United States entered World War II.
The expansion project also includes deepening existing navigation channels and raising the maximum operational level of Gatun Lake by about 1.5 feet. The higher lake level will allow the canal's water system to supply, on average, 165 million gallons per day additional water, enough to support 1,110 additional lockages annually without affecting the water supply for human use.
A preconstruction phase lasting two to three years will include development of final designs, physical models, specifications and contracts, contractor pre-classification, and contractor selection. Dry excavation and dredging of existing channels is expected to begin immediately during this phase. The ACP expects to complete the entire project in 2014.
The current plan is for two new flights of locks: one to the east of the existing Gatún locks, and one southwest of Miraflores locks, each supported by approach channels. Each flight will ascend from ocean level direct to the Gatún Lake level; the existing two-stage ascent at Miraflores / Pedro Miguel will not be replicated. The new lock chambers will feature sliding gates, doubled for safety, and will be 427 metres (1,400 ft) long, 55 metres (180 ft) wide, and 18.3 metres (60 ft) deep; this will allow for the transit of vessels with a beam of up to 49 metres (160 ft), an overall length of up to 366 metres (1,200 ft) and a draft of up to 15 metres (50 ft), equivalent to a container ship carrying around 12,000 20-foot (6.1 m) long containers (TEU).
The new locks will be supported by new approach channels, including a 6.2 kilometre (3.8 mi) channel at Miraflores from the locks to the Gaillard Cut, skirting around Miraflores Lake. Each of these channels will be 218 metres (715 ft) wide, which will require post-Panamax vessels to navigate the channels in one direction at a time. The Gaillard Cut and the channel through Gatún Lake will be widened to no less than 280 metres (918 ft) on the straight portions and no less than 366 metres (1,200 ft) on the bends. The maximum level of Gatún Lake will be raised from reference height 26.7 metres (87.5 ft) to 27.1 metres (89 ft).
Each flight of locks will be accompanied by nine water reutilisation basins (three per lock chamber), each basin being approximately 70 metres (230 ft) wide, 430 metres (1410 ft) long and 5.50 metres (18 ft) deep. These gravity-fed basins will allow 60% of the water used in each transit to be reused; the new locks will consequently use 7% less water per transit than each of the existing lock lanes. The deepening of Gatún Lake, and the raising of its maximum water level, will also provide significant extra water storage capacity. These measures are intended to allow the expanded canal to operate without the construction of new reservoirs.
The estimated cost of the project is US$5.25 billion. The project is designed to allow for an anticipated growth in traffic from 280 million PC/UMS tons in 2005 to nearly 510 million PC/UMS tons in 2025; the expanded canal will have a maximum sustainable capacity of approximately 600 million PC/UMS tons per year. Tolls will continue to be calculated based on vessel tonnage, and will not depend on the locks used.
The new locks are expected to open for traffic in 2015. The present locks, which will be 100 years old by that time, will then have greater access for maintenance, and are projected to continue operating indefinitely. An article in the February 2007 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine describes the plans for the canal, focusing on the engineering aspects of the expansion project.