The Panama Canal Expansion Project… (Casa de Montaña approved!)

blog by Joy Huppe


Recent Casa de Montaña guest, Ralph E. Furlong, on the job!

Casa de Montaña recently hosted a guest who is involved in the current expansion of the Panama Canal. As the Safety Manager for the whole operation, he represents several entities: the shipping company, the SPMT (Self Propelled Modular Trailers) company, and the company that actually constructed the gates themselves. In a span of 18 months, he oversaw the delivery of sixteen gates, with the heaviest gate weighing in at 4,230 tons! The gates were transported with a Heavy Lift Vessel and then off-loaded using 16 SPMTs, each of which have 240 solid tires. All of the gates travelled to Panama from their origin in Tiestre, Italy, taking approximately 28 days for a single gate to make the journey.

There is nothing small about the new gates, or really about the entire endeavor. In fact, it is the largest canal project since the original construction in 1881. The Panama Canal Expansion Program (as the project is named) was initiated in 2007, though work formally began in 2009. Now, some five year later, the end is near!   At the time of this writing it is estimated that the project is approximately 90% finished, with the final gate having been installed at the end of April.


One of the last remaining gates being transported to its final destination…


The scope of the project is impressive, with more than 30,000 jobs that have been created since its execution, and when all is said and done, over 4.4 million cubic meters of concrete poured!   Specifically the program consists of the following projects:

  • New Locks (Third Set of Locks), which is the construction of two lock complexes, which will create a third lane of traffic.
  • Pacific Access Channel, also known as PAC4, which is the excavation of a 6.1 km-long access channel for the new Pacific locks  to bypass Miraflores Lake.
  • Dredging of the navigational channels along the waterway.
  • Improvements to water supply by raising Gatun Lake maximum operational level by 45 cm to improve the Canal’s water supply and draft.

The impetus for all this work? It’s simple: Panama needs to stay relevant in the world of international maritime.

Global commerce is big business. In fact, the number of cargo ships worldwide has more than quadrupled over the past 20 years, to 50,000 vessels carrying $13 trillion in goods each year. Panama is not the only country taking strides to meet growing international transport demands. The Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean to the Asian seas, is adding lanes to accommodate two-way traffic through Egypt. Turkey is planning to dig a canal parallel to the Bosporus Strait linking the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. And China has a plan to create an entirely new canal across Nicaragua – a project that comes with a projected price tag of $70 billion.


When all is said and done, over 4.4 million cubic meters of concrete will have been poured!


If Panama did not undertake their $5.25 billion expansion project, the national economy would have been at risk. As it stands, the Canal is responsible for a large chunk of the national profit, and it is projected that the expansion will boost Panama’s annual economic growth rate by 1.2 percentage points.   Currently, the canal takes reservations months in advance, collecting a 15% booking fee on a toll that often runs to $400,000. The existing locks allow the passage of vessels that can carry up to 5,000 TEUs. After the expansion vessels will be able to transit through the Canal with up to 13,000 TEUs. If the expansion didn’t happen, the larger ships (and their money) would reach America from China via the wider Suez Canal.

Now with project in the end-stages, the Panama Canal Authority is considering launching into a second expansion project! This potential project comes at a higher cost (projected 17 billion) but the end result would be the canal’s capacity to handle the world’s largest sea-faring vessels. It is thought that a fourth set of locks would allow passage for this newest generation of big ships – ones that can carry up to 20,000 containers. In just the past few months alone, container ship traffic through the Canal has risen by 3 to 4 percent, though it was mostly due to now-settled, off-shore labor disputes. Yet, it has given Panama a taste of what even greater revenue could bring, and this is the determining factor for any future expansion: will trade growth sustain the extra investment?


With completion close at hand, Panama is considering a new expansion project!


For now, we are happy to celebrate the near-completion of the current expansion project. It certainly has been, and continues to be, impressive to witness such a grand undertaking. Of course, a trip to the Panama canal is an almost mandatory experience for any would-be tourist… as is staying at Casa de Montaña when visiting Boquete!   😉


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