The only port on the East Coast able to handle the Post-Panamax ships is The Port of Virginia at Norfolk. West Coast ports are naturally deeper and can handle the bigger ships.
So, East Coast cities, along with the budget-conscious federal government, are prying open the checkbook to attract the Post-Panamax ships. (U.S. ports are under federal control, including providing funding for maintenance and improvements).
(Read more: US House bill has key Savannah harbor provision)
South Carolina is currently investing some $700 million in port-related infrastructure projects in Charleston, said Jim Newsome, CEO of the South Carolina Ports Authority, and an expected $1.3 billion—mostly federal aid—over the next 10 years.
"American exports are growing again and while it may not be a boom, more ships from Asia will come through the canal and to East Coast cities," said Newsome.
"We'll have more jobs and more opportunity for manufacturing as a result of the capacity to handle the bigger ships," he said.
"The Port of Miami paid $43 million for four super-sized cranes that can handle cargo from the larger ships," said Edward Easton, chair of industrial development firm The Easton Group, based in Miami.
"Local government is spending $550 million on a tunnel that will enable tractor-trailers to go from the port directly to I-95," he said. "We should see at least a 3 percent improvement in the local industrial economy from the expansion and what the city is doing."
As much as the money has been flowing, it's been difficult to come by. States and cities are having to put their own funds in, as the money from Washington for port improvement is dependent on reviews and approvals that take time.
New York and New Jersey officials announced a plan in 2010 to raise the Bayonne Bridge from 151 feet above the water to 215 above the water to allow the bigger ships to pass through to New Jersey's Port Newark and other local ports. The review process is still in effect.
And Congress has to agree on a renewal (currently done every two years) of the Water Resources Development Act, which collects fees for harbor improvements and dredging, which reportedly has some $8.1 billion on hand.
"We need the support of federal dollars to keep this process going," said former U.S. Sen. George Lemieux, R-Fla., who served on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
"Florida is a donor state, meaning we send more money to Washington than we get back, so getting the funds to help the port projects will be consistent to help create jobs," he said. "People in Miami and Florida are optimistic about the canal expansion and the benefits to us."