Port it Forward: Panama Canal Expansion Seems to Be Bringing Positive Effects for Eastern Ports

Early anecdotal evidence suggests the Panama Canal expansion this year is bringing more shipping to East Coast ports that enlarged their capacity to handle bigger container ships.

The Port of Virginia just reported it moved more cargo in October than in any month ever—just two months after the previous record-breaking month, spokesman Joe Harris told Bloomberg BNA. Meanwhile, the Port of Baltimore is on track through September to outpace its record year of 2015, the Maryland port’s communications director Richard Scher told Bloomberg BNA.

Port of Virginia, Portsmouth, Va.

The two ports are among only four along the Eastern Seaboard that can handle the biggest ships from the recently expanded Panama Canal—a nine-yearlong, $5.25 billion project completed in June.

Operators caution that it’s way too early to know the exact impact that the expanded canal and the larger container ships that can traverse it will have in the long run. But the Virginia Port Authority says one thing is certain: The port is handling larger ships with increased frequency. 

“The peak-season cargo is continuing and the volumes are being carried on bigger vessels that are rotating into the Atlantic trade,” John F. Reinhart, CEO and executive director of the Virginia Port Authority, said in a press release issued with the October statistics. “We are seeing ships in the 10,000-plus TEU range with regularity and larger vessels are on the horizon.”

TEU—which stands for 20-foot equivalent unit—is a standard unit for measuring the size of container ships. The new Panama Canal locks can handle ships as large as 14,000 TEUs, while the previous capacity had been 5,000 TEUs.

Panama Canal

Many East Coast ports are racing to upgrade their facilities to handle the larger ships, including the ports of Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C., where projects to deepen the shipping channels are incomplete. Some port operators are waiting on Congress to finish work on a Water Resources and Development Act, which would authorize new port infrastructure spending. 

Harris ventured a very rough guess that about half of the 10,000-plus TEU ships using the port are traveling through the Panama Canal, while the other half may be traversing the Suez Canal, which has also been enlarged. 

It will probably take about a year before there is sufficient data to evaluate the impact of the Panama Canal expansion, he said.