Panama Canal project may benefit area

Matthew Santoni
| Friday, June 18, 2010

The expansion of the Panama Canal could bring more shipping business to Western Pennsylvania.

Companies that export goods from China and the rest of Asia are looking for routes to the East Coast and Midwest that are cheaper and more reliable than the crowded West Coast ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, according to port planner and consultant M. John Vickerman.

So when the $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal opens in 2015, allowing larger ships to move more cargo from the Pacific to the Atlantic, he said it could boost shipping through Pennsylvania from ports in the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes.

"The Mississippi and Ohio rivers could become a highway for container cargo dropped off at Gulf ports and brought up by barge," he said Vickerman, who spoke Thursday at a commercial real estate development association in Pittsburgh. "There is a potential to bring small ships through (the) St. Lawrence (Seaway), drop their cargo in ports like Erie, and go through the 'back door' to New York faster and cheaper."

Getting container freight from the ocean to "inland ports" such as Pittsburgh requires expansions along the way, including longer, deeper harbors where large ships can dock; railroad yards where goods can be moved from trains to trucks; and repairs to river locks.

"It's all going to have a positive impact, but the degree of that impact depends on a lot of things," said James McCarville, president of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission. "We do look toward some growth, but it's not anything people can yet put into the bank."

In Erie and nearby Conneaut, Ohio, officials are working to add cargo container facilities to lakeside docks that load and unload bulk cargo such as coal and iron ore. They hope to tap booming freight business in Canadian ports such as Montreal and Halifax, said John Elliott, CEO of the Economic Development Corp. of Erie County.

"Montreal is a very fast-growing port ... because of the curvature of the Earth, Montreal is closer to Europe than the port of Baltimore by 400 miles," Elliott said.

Some companies send ships through the Suez Canal in Egypt, through the Mediterranean Sea and across the Atlantic to East Coast ports like Montreal. From there, ships carrying 700 to 800 containers apiece -- as many as two fully-loaded trains or more than 300 trucks -- can come down the St. Lawrence Seaway and Lake Erie to reach markets in the Midwest.

The Army Corps of Engineers estimates it would cost $2 billion to repair and update three lock and dam systems along the Ohio River, where the wait for barges to pass through can be measured in days.

"We're very concerned about the state of the declining infrastructure on the Ohio River," McCarville said. "These things weigh heavily against us in the minds of people making transportation plans."

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