Panama Canal’s Growth Prompts U.S. Ports to Expand

But some who are following the efforts have begun to express skepticism about the hope and money going into dredging mud and raising steel. With so many ports competing for a share of the bounty, experts are questioning how big that bounty will be. “Everybody is trying to go after it — there are going to be few beneficiaries, in my judgment,” said William D. Ankner, a former official of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and a former secretary of transportation for Louisiana.

The big ships — known as “Post-Panamax” and even “Super-Post-Panamax” — are already in heavy use worldwide, making up 16 percent of the container fleet but accounting for 45 percent of its capacity, according to a July report by the Army Corps of Engineers. And “those numbers are projected to grow significantly over the next 20 years,” said Maj. Gen. Michael J. Walsh, deputy commanding general for civil and emergency operations for the corps, in announcing the report.

In the race that began when plans for the expansion were first announced in 2006, some winners have already emerged. The Port of Virginia, in Norfolk, is ready to receive the big ships today. And New York is also prepared, thanks to a massive dredging project that began 13 years ago.

But nearly every port in the game still faces major challenges and expenses — including the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which plans to spend $1 billion to raise the Bayonne Bridge roadway by 64 feet to allow the giant ships through on their way to to Newark and Elizabeth, N.J.

After talking up port projects in ways that sound a bit like the overblown economic predictions about new stadiums and convention centers in recent years, some officials are now scaling back their claims. After Hurricane Katrina, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi trumpeted plans for a “port of the future” at Gulfport with a 50-foot-deep channel, redirecting some $600 million in federal housing disaster funds on a project he pledged would spur the economy and create bountiful jobs. A state official at the time called it “the single largest economic-development project in the state’s history,” and officials predicted that it would surpass the Port of Los Angeles.

Today, Mississippi and the port are being more modest. The port recently noted that it is not pursuing the announced plans to dredge the channel to 50 feet, and because of lapsed maintenance, the channel does not even reach the depth of 36 feet authorized by law. The port is now focused on improving what it has instead of expanding greatly, and plans focus more on the cascade effect as smaller ships are crowded out of the major ports by the new superships.

Local critics of the original plan like Reilly Morse, policy director of Mississippi Center for Justice, said the state had been swept up in a national fad “that promised far more economic benefits than it could deliver and risked far greater burdens on the host community than it could support.”

NYT
8/20/12