Rebuilding the Canal

Rebuilding the Canal

To the builders, engineers and planners working on the massive effort to enlarge and modernize the Panama Canal, the usual descriptions of the ambitious project miss the true scale of the undertaking.

“This is not just an expansion of our canal,” says Jorge Quijano, the engineer in charge of the excavation and construction for the Panama Canal’s third set of locks. “An expansion sounds like we’re building an annex to the house. This is not just a little room — we are adding another house.

“We are building a new canal,” he says. “Yes, it’s doubling the capacity of the canal. But to me, it’s opening up the opportunities of world commerce to this area.”

Quijano, executive vice president for engineering and project management at the Panama Canal Authority, cites the mind-boggling statistics involved in the project. To build locks that are longer, wider and deeper than the existing locks, the project’s contractors are excavating 4.7 million cubic meters of rock and soil, a third more than the amount excavated for the canal’s construction in the decade from 1904 to 1914.

“We are trying to do the same things the U.S. did and improve on it,” Quijano said. “Technology allows us to do that.”

Quijano, who earned his master’s degree in industrial engineering at Lamar University in Texas and worked for Texaco in Panama before he joined the canal authority in 1975, presides over the
$5.25 billion project from the construction headquarters next to the canal in Corozal, near Panama City.

The dollar figure, of course, is beside the point. The real measure of the project’s weight is in the impact it already is having around the world, from shipbuilding in South Korea and crane construction in China to the port and rail infrastructure investment in North America. The impact, many experts say, will echo across the trading world as the new canal opens new ways to reach markets with operations measured on a larger scale.

That scale is taking shape along the muddy banks where a new canal is emerging alongside the century-old route linking two oceans.

The project involves digging two new channels and building two sets of three new locks that run parallel to the existing locks on the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the Panama Canal. The new locks will be 1,400 feet long, 180 feet wide and 60 feet deep and will be able to accommodate ships up to 1,200 feet long. By comparison, the existing locks, which are 1,000 feet long, 100 feet wide and 42 feet deep, handle ships up to 965 feet in length.

The project also involves deepening and widening the channels leading into both entrances to the canal and deepening and widening the Gatun Lake channel in the middle of the canal so ships can pass each other more easily. This involves straightening out the channel so ships can steam faster, which will mean removing an island that creates a dogleg in the channel. The canal authority also plans to build a new bridge near the Gatun Locks to replace the canal crossing over the existing locks.

In addition to the actual lock construction, privately financed expansion projects are under way at both ends of the canal aimed at making Panama more than a transit site. Those include as many as three new terminals on the Pacific side, the expansion of the three terminals on the Atlantic side and the addition of more warehouses and container yard space at the Colon Free Trade Zone. All are designed to take advantage of Panama’s strategic location as a transshipment hub for the east and west coasts of North and South America and the Caribbean.

“I can see a lot of people looking at Panama as an opportunity to grow with the expansion project,” Quijano said.

The excavation work for the new locks on the Atlantic side, which runs parallel to the Gatun Locks, follows the same channel the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to excavate when it started to expand the canal in 1939, only to be interrupted by World War II. On the Pacific side, the old channel doesn’t follow the same course because the canal authority decided ships could go through the new locks more quickly if the channel bypassed Miraflores Lake and moved directly from the canal entrance up to Gatun Lake. As a result, much of the old channel must be filled in and tamped down so the ground can support the water-saving infrastructure that will support the new locks

The channel on the Pacific side bypasses the two Miraflores Locks and the single Pedro Miguel Lock by creating just one set of three locks that will lock ships up to Gatun Lake, 85 feet above sea level.

“Having to enter the Miraflores Locks with tugboats to get up to the Miraflores Lake and then be met by another set of tugboats to guide you into the Pedro Miguel Lock creates too much noise in the system,” Quijano said. “You waste half an hour.”

“With the new locks, you go through three locks, one after the other,” he said. “With the new locks, boom, boom, boom and you’re out.”

To provide ships that pass through the new locks a passage up to Gatun Lake, the project is building a new channel 85 feet above sea level — like an aqueduct — that will carry ships around Lake Miraflores and the Pedro Miguel Lock directly into Gatun Lake.

Standing on the lip of the excavation for the new locks offers a vivid perspective on the vast scale of the project. At the bottom of the excavation, some 30 stories deep, scores of workers in yellow Day-Glo vests appear ant-sized, next to giant Caterpillar trucks that look about the size of children’s Matchbox toy trucks. Looking south, the excavation runs for about a mile to the point where it will eventually join with the existing entrance to the canal. Looking to the north, the excavation still must be dug out all the way up to Gatun Lake. The workers at the bottom of the pit last month were blasting the channel out of the basalt bedrock that underlies the site and loading the blasted rocks into the big trucks.

Basalt, a fine-grained volcanic rock, provides the project with a great advantage. It can be crushed down to sand that can be mixed with cement and water to make concrete for the new locks, so the project doesn’t have to bring in sand to make concrete. Instead, the big trucks carry the basalt rocks to a crushing facility alongside the excavation pit, where the big rocks are crushed down to smaller rocks and then to sand.

Quijano said the workers started pouring “lean” concrete as the foundations for the locks but ran into an unexpected problem during what is normally the dry season this winter. It has been raining more than usual, mirroring the weather systems producing heavy snow in the United States. The project continues to pour concrete for the locks’ foundations, but is shielding it with what Quijano calls “umbrellas” — vast sheets of plastic that keep the foundations dry during the curing process.

Quijano keeps careful track of progress on the project, including everything from the design of the new locks to the dry excavation and the deepening and widening of the parts of the existing canal that will be shared by ships passing through the old and new locks.

He estimates 20 percent of the “earned value” of the project has been completed. At the Atlantic entrance to the canal, 70 percent of the dredging is completed, and on the Pacific entrance, 60 percent. The excavation for the locks on the Pacific side of the canal is ahead of schedule, he said.

On the Atlantic side of the canal, production was not as high as originally expected, but it tripled during last fall’s wet season, so the excavation there is also ahead of schedule, Quijano said.

At the beginning of the project, its various elements were scheduled for completion at the same time, in October 2014. “But that proved to be too difficult to manage, so we decided to advance the timeline,” he said. Now all of the projects are due for completion by October 2013, and the only project remaining after that would be the locks, which are slated to be finished on Oct. 20, 2014. That would put the larger canal on schedule to open by the end of 2014, a target date the maritime world has been watching closely since the project was announced five years ago.

Since then, shipping companies have been lining up fleet plans, and ports on the east coast of North America are scrambling to complete their own improvement projects to meet a deadline for a new era of competition.

Quijano said the only part of the project that could possibly fall behind schedule is the construction of the locks, but they are still too far down the road to tell. “It will be the largest lock footprint in the world,” he said.

Handling the design and construction of the new locks is the international consortium that won the contract with the lowest bid of $3.12 billion. The Grupo Unidos por el Canal consortium consists of Sacyr Vallehermoso of Spain, Impregilo of Italy, Jan De Nul of Luxembourg, and Constructora Urbana of Panama, which is known as CUSA.

“It’s a challenge dealing with consortia of four companies from different countries with multiple subcontractors, all from different countries,” Quijano said. “They think differently and are organized differently.” The startup time took longer than dealing with just one company with a uniform culture.

“Dealing with the different company and country cultures is one of the most difficult things we’ve seen,” he said. “But as time went on, things started running much smoother, and those cultures start to fade away and they start to acquire a more balanced culture.”

Contact Peter T. Leach at