Panama Canal expansion impact minimal, Va. port chief says

A cargo ship squeezes through the Panama Canal's Miraflores Locks in Panama City last year. A major expansion of the famous waterway has East Coast U.S. ports racing to deepen their shipping channels to accommodate larger ships.

The expansion of the Panama Canal to accommodate larger ships likely won't result in much cargo being diverted from West Coast ports to those on the East Coast, but it may result in stiffer competition among East Coast ports, Virginia's top port official said Wednesday.

"I think it's going to be very modest," said John Reinhart, executive director of the Port of Virginia. "This is not going to take a lot of volume off the West Coast and move it east."

Reinhart made the comments at the International Association of Maritime Economists' annual conference, which continues through Friday.

Once completed at the end of 2015, the Panama Canal will be able to handle significantly larger ships from Asia that typically go to West Coast ports in the U.S. now. The project would double the capacity of the 50-mile canal, which carries 5 to 6 percent of world commerce.

Several ports along the East Coast are preparing for larger vessels from the expanded Panama Canal, including the Port of Charleston.

"The Panama Canal certainly has an impact and we have been preparing for that impact," said Erin Dhand, spokeswoman for the South Carolina State Ports Authority.

The anticipated larger vessel traffic has the SPA updating many of its marine cargo terminals and seeking to deepen Charleston Harbor from 45 to 50 feet by 2018.

Virginia's is already at the needed 50-foot depth.

Reinhart said some of the supersized cargo ships are already arriving at East Coast ports that have deep enough water by traveling through the Suez Canal. From China to Virginia, traveling through the Suez Canal is only about 700 miles longer a trip than traveling through the Panama Canal, he said.

"I don't see this as a major earthshaking event," Reinhart said.

An opportunity exists, however, for a port to be the first or last stop a post-Panamax ship makes, he said. That's because the larger ships will likely make fewer stops in an effort to reduce their costs.

That's the experience found on the West Coast, said Geraldine Knatz, the retired executive director of the Port of Los Angeles.

Knatz also concurred with Reinhart's assessment that West Coast ports don't stand to lose a lot of business to those on the East Coast as a result of the canal's expansion.

"Many of us on the West Coast do not view this as an 'East Coast port versus West Coast port,' but pretty much as a competitive battle among the East Coast port themselves," she said. "That's not to say there's not competition among the various coastlines, but Los Angeles really faces competition on a number of fronts."

Tyrone Richardson of The Post and Courier contributed to this report.