In 2015 nearly 14,000 ships transited the Panama Canal, between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, carrying 340 million long tons1 of cargo, 70.2 percent of which was either going to or coming from the United States [PCA 2015]. Figure 3-12 shows major U.S. ports that handle trade moving through the Panama Canal.
To meet increasing demand and help to maintain the Canal’s competitiveness in international maritime trade, the Panama Canal Authority undertook the expansion of the Canal that included the construction of a third set of locks that are bigger than the original ones and the widening and deepening of the Gatun Lake and access channels. These changes increased the maximum size of ships that can transit the Canal from 5,000 TEU up to 13,000 TEU, effectively doubling the Canal’s throughput capacity. The newly expanded Canal, which opened for business on June 26, 2016, has already affected U.S. port and landside infrastructure development and will likely affect shipping routes and U.S. international trade as well as a host of other maritime system considerations. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, post-Panamax vessels2 will represent 62 percent of total container ship capacity by 2030 [USACE 2012].
The expansion also may provide a boost to U.S. agricultural, energy, and other commodity exports from Atlantic coast and Gulf coast ports to Asian markets. Grains, container cargo, petroleum/petroleum products, ores/ metals, and coal/coke were the top U.S. commodities shipped via the Panama Canal in 2015 [PCA 2015]. According to a Maritime Administration study, the expanded Canal will reduce the cost to export U.S. grains and energy commodities to Asian markets via new and larger bulk vessels, liquefied natural gas carriers, and liquid petroleum and bulk chemical tankers. This, in turn, could generate more barge and rail traffic from the Midwest where these commodities are produced to Atlantic and Gulf coast ports [USDOT MARAD 2013].