NEWARK, N.J. — When the Panama Canal’s third set of locks opens sometime in mid-2015, it won’t be the last time the Panama Canal Authority expands the canal. “It will have to expand one more time after that,” said Alberto Aleman Zubieta, who stepped down as administrator of the Panama Canal Authority in September after 17 years at the helm.
Aleman, who engineered the massive ongoing $5.25 billion expansion of the canal, addressed the canal’s future needs in accepting the 2012 Connie Award, presented on Monday by the Containerization & Intermodal Institute in Newark, N.J.
He said the ever-increasing size of new, more fuel-efficient ships being built in response to the rising price of bunker fuel means the canal will have to expand again in the future to handle ships such as Maersk Line’s Triple-E ships with 18,000 20-foot-equivalent units of capacity.
“It’s a great problem to shipping lines,” he said.
The new locks, which have been in development since the project was announced in 2004, will be able to handle container ships of up to 13,000 TEUs of capacity, compared to the current Panamax limit of almost 5,000.
Since he retired after his second seven-year term as head of the canal authority, Aleman has been setting up a consulting firm called ABCO Global in Panama City, Panama, to advise companies that are building maritime infrastructure projects in Latin America.
In looking at his long career at the canal authority, Aleman said his biggest accomplishment was overseeing the transition from U.S. to Panamanian control and convincing the Panamanian people of the importance of keeping the canal running for the benefit of world trade and of convincing global shipping lines that Panamanians could manage it.
“There was doubt about our ability to run it,” he said. “We had to change the culture of the way the industry looked at the canal.”
When the canal started bumping up against the upper limit of its capacity in 2004, he again had to convince Panamanians to approve the massive expansion project in a national referendum. “We had to explain what was in it for them,” Aleman said. Panama approved the referendum by a vote of 80 percent to 20 percent against.
“When the new locks open in 2015, it will be the beginning of a new era for Panama,” he said. “It’s been a fantastic ride.”