For now, the future of global shipping is little more than a hole in the ground here, just a short distance from the Pacific Ocean.
Ah, but what a hole it is.
About a mile long, several hundred feet wide and more than 100 feet deep, the excavation is an initial step in the building of a larger set of locks for the Panama Canal that should double the amount of goods that can pass through it each year.
The $5.25 billion project, scheduled for completion in 2014, is the first expansion in the history of the century-old shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific. By allowing much bigger container ships and other cargo vessels to easily reach the Eastern United States, it will alter patterns of trade and put pressure on East and Gulf Coast ports like Savannah, Ga., and New Orleans to deepen harbors and expand cargo-handling facilities.
Right now, with its two lanes of locks that can handle ships up to 965 feet long and 106 feet wide — a size known as Panamax — the canal operates at or near its capacity of about 35 ships a day. During much of the year, that can mean dozens of ships are moored off each coast, waiting a day or longer to enter the canal.
The new third set of locks will help eliminate some of those backlogs, by adding perhaps 15 passages to the daily total. More important, the locks will be able to handle “New Panamax” ships — 25 percent longer, 50 percent wider and, with a deeper draft as well, able to carry two or three times the cargo.
No one can predict the full impact of the expansion. But for starters, it should mean faster and cheaper shipping of some goods between the United States and Asia.
Dean Campbell, a soybean farmer from Coulterville, Ill., for instance, expects the expansion will help him compete with farmers in South America — which, he said, “has much poorer infrastructure for getting the grain out.”
The canal expansion “will have a definite impact on us,” Mr. Campbell said. “We think in general it will be a good thing, we just don’t know how good.”
Jean Paul Rodrigue, a professor of global studies and geography at Hofstra University who has studied the expansion project, said that the shipping industry was waiting to see how big the impact would be. “They know it’s going to change things, but they’re not sure of the scale.”
For now the hole, parallel to the existing smaller Pacific locks and about a half-mile away, is a scene of frenetic activity by workers and machines laboring in the tropical haze. At one end, giant hydraulic excavators scoop blasted rock into a parade of earth movers that dump it topside on a slowly growing mountain of rubble. At the other, where the machines have finished their work, a pack of about 50 men buzzes over the rock floor, preparing it to serve as a foundation for a bed of concrete.
That slab will be one small building block for the immense structures to come: three 1,400-foot-long locks, water-filled chambers that will serve as stair steps, raising or lowering ships a total of 85 feet. An identical set of locks will be built on the Atlantic side.
Once an Atlantic-bound ship leaves the new Pacific locks, it would join the existing canal at the Culebra Cut — an eight-mile channel through the continental divide — and then steam across Gatún Lake to the new Atlantic locks for the trip back down to sea level. In all, the 51-mile passage will take about half a day, as it does now.
The expansion is being financed with loans from development banks to be repaid through tolls that currently reach several hundred thousand dollars for large ships. The project is huge by Panama’s standards; among other things, the country’s largest rock-crushing plant has sprung up, almost overnight, to turn the mountain of excavated rubble into sand and stone for the concrete.
It is hardly the biggest infrastructure project in the world, “but this is the one that has the most foreign impact,” said Jorge L. Quijano, an executive vice president of the Panama Canal Authority, which has operated the canal since the United States handed it to Panama more than a decade ago. “And I think it is the one that has the most impact on the United States.”
And perhaps on other nations: some of the largest ships that currently serve Europe by traveling through the wider Suez Canal in Egypt may begin using the Panama route.
But the impact will probably be greatest in the United States, the destination or origin of about two-thirds of the goods that pass through the canal.
Like the construction of the original canal, an engineering masterpiece that opened in 1914 after 10 years of work by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the expansion project is a daunting task, but for different reasons.
The corps had to tackle tropical diseases that had killed thousands of workers during an earlier failed effort by the French. It had to excavate — and, crucially, dispose of — tens of millions of cubic yards of dirt and rock. And it built locks that were then the world’s largest.
“They were the best engineers in the world, ever,” said Alberto Alemán Zubieta, the chief executive of the canal authority. “Today I’ve got computers, technology, super equipment. Those guys did this in 10 years, under the most difficult conditions ever.”
The biggest questions today concern whether, in a country and region marked by official corruption, the canal authority, an autonomous agency of the Panamanian government, can handle such an undertaking. Panama’s vice president, Juan Carlos Varela, was reported to have privately called the project a “disaster” in 2009, according to an American diplomatic memo made public last year by WikiLeaks. Mr. Varela described the main contractors, Spanish and Italian firms, as “weak.”
But authority executives say they have had nothing but support from the government. They claim that the project is on time and under budget, and that the authority has the engineering and management skill to complete it.
Some outsiders agree. “We are quite impressed with how the project is being run,” said Byron Miller, a spokesman for the Port of Charleston in South Carolina, which is spending $1.3 billion over 10 years on improvements to handle the additional cargo from the canal and other routes.
Expansion of the canal was first proposed in the 1930s to accommodate large United States warships, and excavation for larger locks began in 1939 but was stopped during World War II. The current project was approved in a national referendum in 2006.
Deeper approach channels are being dredged on both coasts. And on the Pacific side, crews are excavating a long channel that will connect the new locks to the Culebra Cut. The channel through Gatún Lake is being widened so that larger ships can pass each other.
The new locks, which will account for about half the cost of the project, will work on the same principle used by the existing ones: moved solely by gravity, water is fed into or emptied from the chambers, raising or lowering the ships inside. But the new locks will use a different kind of gate at the end of each chamber, which should make maintenance easier and less disruptive. They will also have a feature found on some canals in Europe: three shallow basins next to each lock that will store water and reuse it. With the basins, the new locks will use about four million fewer gallons of water for each ship’s passage through the canal than the much smaller existing locks. Even so, to ensure there is enough, the project will raise the level of Gatún Lake, which supplies the water for the locks, by about a foot and a half.
Water use would not seem to be much of an issue in rain-soaked Panama. But Gatún Lake serves as a drinking water supply as well. And the water level has to be monitored so there is enough stored for use by the canal during the dry season, roughly January to April. If the level is too low the authority has to reduce the amount of water for each passage, which means the deepest-draft ships cannot use the canal unless they unload some cargo.
Water quality is an issue as well. The new locks and basins will allow more saltwater into Gatún Lake, although the canal authority insists that the effect will be small and that steps can be taken to mitigate the problem if necessary.
The water-saving basins, with an elaborate system o
f culverts and valves to divert water to and from the chambers, may be the project’s most technologically challenging part. Operators will use computer controls that are a far cry from the electromechanical ones, with brass and glass indicators and chrome valve handles, that were used from 1914 until just a few years ago.
Despite the system’s complexities, Mr. Quijano, the canal authority official, insisted that the authority was capable of carrying it out successfully. “We have not invented anything that has not been invented before,” he said.
Mr. Alemán, the authority’s chief executive, also expressed confidence in the project’s overall success, saying his managers draw lessons from those who worked a century ago. “We have a very high standard to live up to,” he said.