The release of the Obama administration 2012 budget this week offers a revealing snapshot of the state of East Coast preparedness – or lack thereof - for the scheduled 2014 expansion of the Panama Canal and the larger ships that will soon show up on the East Coast loaded with goods from Asia.
Ships of the 8,000-TEU class, in order to enter ports fully loaded, require in excess of 47 feet of clearance, which means a channel needs to be dredged to nearly 50 feet so the ship doesn’t scrape along the bottom when entering and leaving the harbor.
New York-New Jersey has roughly 70 percent of its 50-foot project complete. If it can eliminate the air-draft obstacle of the Bayonne Bridge through an announced $1 billion span-elevation project, its 50-foot channel will make it ready for the larger ships.
The Obama budget would allocate $65 million to finish the project, so if that number survives the budget process, New York-New Jersey will be looking good.
Charleston wants to deepen to 50-feet but couldn’t get $400,000 needed for an initial Army Corps of Engineers study, so it is years away from 50 feet. Yet Charleston already has 45 feet, and although it won’t have the depth of New York or Norfolk, still will be deeper than neighboring Savannah and so in a better position to receive the larger ships.
Savannah wants to deepen from 42 to 48 feet but got just $600,000 of the $105 million it requested out of an estimated $600 million total price tag. The Georgia port also faces potential opposition from South Carolina, which shares the 36-mile Savannah River channel to the Savannah port.
Miami had asked for $75 million for its own 50-foot dredging project and received nothing. What all this rolls up to is this: as it looks today, it will be a select few East Coast ports that will be ready to handle larger ships able to transit the Panama Canal after 2014.