A growing number of supersize freighters, which up to now have relied mostly on West Coast ports to deliver goods from Asia to the USA because they couldn't fit through the Panama Canal, will be able to make the trip to the East Coast economically when an expansion of the canal is completed in 2014.
Ports on the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, whose harbors have been too shallow to accommodate these behemoths, are gearing up to spend more than $40 billion over the next five years to deepen their shipping channels and make other upgrades, according to Aaron Ellis, director of communications for the American Association of Port Authorities.
The ports of Norfolk, Va., and Baltimore have completed projects that put them in position to be the first to receive the big ships, some of them 1,110 feet long with the capacity to haul up to 13,000 boxcar-size freight containers, Ellis said.
Elsewhere, the work is in varying stages:
The Army Corps of Engineers is expected to finish dredging a 50-foot deep channel to three terminals in New York Harbor by the end of the year and to the main New York terminal by 2014, according to New York/New Jersey Port Authority spokesman Hunter Pendarvis. The authority has committed $1 billion to raise the Bayonne Bridge by 64 feet to allow the bigger ships to pass under, he said.
Miami-Dade County reached an agreement in April with environmental groups that had raised concerns about the Port of Miami's Deep Dredge project. It is expected to be able to handle the big ships by 2014 or soon thereafter, according to Ellis.
The Corps of Engineers completed a study in April finding that Savannah, Ga.'s proposed $652-million channel deepening project is viable.
The Corps is in the midst of a study of Charleston harbor, said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the South Carolina Ports Authority.
Philadelphia and Corpus Christi are currently involved in dredging projects, according to Ellis. Boston, Jacksonville, Canaveral and Freeport, Texas, are among other ports pursuing deeper channels, he said.
The association is lobbying Congress for approval, which is required by the Constitution for such projects, and for funding. But, "Because freight doesn't really have as strong a voice as the movement of people, it's going to take a lot of heavy lifting," Ellis said.
"We're fighting hard enough in this country just to keep our navigation channels maintained at their authorized depths and widths."
South Carolina's Legislature this month designated $300 million to the Charleston project - enough to do the job even if the federal government doesn't come up with its 40% match.
"I think everyone is starting to suspect that there may not be enough federal funding for any harbor, basically, today," Newsome said. "So we have to operate under the assumption that we're not going to get held up by a lack of federal funding."
There are other hurdles, both environmental and political. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has introduced legislation that would require the Corps of Engineers to rank the ports for funding priority. Even if federal money isn't approved, congressional authorization would be needed for the work to go ahead, said Lt. Col. Ed Chamberlayne, commander of the Corps of Engineers Charleston District.
Meanwhile, West Coast ports that have had the big-ship business to themselves for the most part are pointing out their advantages in a fight to keep from losing their largest customers.
Among those are the time factor, said Kraig Jondle, director of business and trade development for the Port of Los Angeles. It takes 17 days to ship goods from Shanghai to New York by transferring to rail in Los Angeles, he said. On the other hand, using the all-water route takes 26 days, he said. Ships also must pay a toll of about $375,000 to pass through the Panama Canal, a sum Jondle figures will rise once the new locks are complete. "We feel we're in real good position," he said. But he added, "We certainly see the Panama Canal as a threat, no doubt about it."