The Good and Bad of Panama Canal's Locks Delay

The Panama Canal Authority originally planned to inaugurate the third set of locks it is building in August 2014, exactly 100 years after the opening of its old canal locks. But construction schedules dictated an opening in October 2014, two months later. In public statements over the last few years, Canal Authority Administrator Alberto Aleman Zubieta has affirmed that date. But then Murphy’s Law kicked in: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”

The opening of the new locks is likely to be delayed three months because the consortium building the locks, Grupo Unidos por el Canal, couldn’t make concrete that met the required degree of impermeability set by the Panama Canal Authority in its $3.2 billion contract. The canal authority had to bring in an outside expert to show GUPC how to make concrete that would resist the ravages of saltwater and last another 100 years.

That delayed the pouring of the concrete from January 2011 until last July.

East Coast ports that already can handle the big post-Panamax ships are shrugging off the delay. Those ports not ready for the giant ships that will transit the locks may see the deferring opening as good news. “In the big picture, the delay of a couple of months is not of concern to us,” said Jerry Bridges, executive director of the Virginia Port Authority.

The Port of Virginia, with 50 feet of water depth and no low bridges, is ready to handle the big ships. “Getting it right the first time with a bit of a delay is much better than opening up, then having to close temporarily to tweak things and then reopen; that is not a good option.”

Jorge Quijano, the engineer who will become the new administrator of the canal authority in September when Aleman retires, told me the new locks will be ready for a trial run by a ship in October 2014, but not for full operation. “The pre-commissioning tests of the locks will actually start taking place in February 2014, so that says that by that time, the lock structure is complete,” he said.

This marks a three-month delay from the previous completion date of December 2013. The canal authority will start testing the gates in February 2014. The flooding of the locks is now scheduled for Sept. 15. “After that, we will begin testing with water, which can take up to three months,” Quijano said.

The delay may come as good news for the ports of Charleston and Savannah, because it gives them more time to battle for money from Congress to fund their harbor-deepening projects. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey might like an even longer delay because it plans to elevate the low-hanging roadway of the Bayonne Bridge by 2016 to allow the bigger ships to get to and from its four biggest container terminals on the western side of the harbor.

Contact Peter T. Leach at pleach@joc.com. Follow him on Twitter @petertleach.

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