By Portfolio Editor Roz Hamlett
A week ago, the MOL Benefactor, the mega-sized container ship from China, berthed successfully at the Global Container Terminal in Bayonne, N.J. The Benefactor was the largest vessel ever to call upon the largest port on the East Coast – the Port of New York & New Jersey (PONYNJ). Only a week earlier on July 2, the MOL Benefactor had passed through the recently expanded Panama Canal on its way to PONYNJ.
The Panama Canal is a strategically located 48-mile waterway between Costa Rica to the east and Colombia to the west connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. The capacity of the 102-year-old canal has doubled by adding a wider and deeper lane to accommodate larger ships carrying three times the number of containers from Asia to the Eastern and Gulf coasts for less money.
“The Panama Expansion Project coupled with the significant infrastructure investments made by the Port Authority and our container terminal operators allow bigger ships to call the PONYNJ,” said Bethann Rooney, assistant director, Port Performance Initiatives, Port Authority.
After more than a century, the Panama Canal is still considered one of the greatest engineering achievements of all time. This expansion potentially could create yet another sea change in global shipping, rivaling the cost savings of containerization itself.
France began construction of the canal in 1880, but the project wouldn’t be completed until the United States took control in 1904, finishing it 10 years later. The massive undertaking claimed 30,609 souls.
Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French developer in charge of the project, had successfully built the Suez Canal, but the Panama project proved to be his undoing. Under Lesseps’s leadership, the project consumed $260 million without coming to completion, triggering a scandal that led eventually to convictions of fraud and conspiracy. Lesseps died a broken man.
When Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1901, most of the world saw the unfinished Panama Canal as a poisonous sinkhole: a disease-ridden jungle of yellow fever, malaria, corruption and the site of 20,000 deaths of workers, who were mostly West Indians.
Yet Roosevelt knew the Panama Canal was the most direct path to America’s greatness. To gain control of the Canal Zone, Roosevelt persuaded Panama to declare its independence from Colombia under the protection of the United States. On November 3, 1903, rebel soldiers seized the isthmus and the revolution was over by sundown. A foreign-born shopkeeper and a donkey were the only casualties.
Three Chief Engineers worked on the canal project before its completion: John Wallace, 1904-05; John Stevens, 1905-07 and Colonel George Washington Goethals, 1907-1914. Goethals, for whom the Goethals Bridge is named, earned the nickname “the Genius of the Panama Canal” for seeing the canal through to its completion. But Goethals often said Stevens was the real genius because he recognized the project couldn’t be done without first solving the problems of excavation. Stevens ordered all digging to stop while more railroad track was laid until the railroad functioned as a giant conveyor belt, carrying away dynamited rock and other construction debris.
The US overcame the regular flooding of the construction site from the Chagres River during rainy seasons with a temporary dike constructed upstream to capture the floodwaters. A larger, permanent dam was constructed at the mouth of the Chagres, which produced Gatun Lake, with a surface elevation of approximately 85 feet. The captured water flowed into a series of locks that lifted vessels up to the level of the lake, the system still in use today.
The expanded lock system makes PONYNJ a particularly attractive port of call for super-sized ships like Benefactor. In the competition for discretionary cargo, which shippers intend not for local consumption, but to reach destinations hundreds of miles away, PONYNJ is well-positioned because of its investments in waterside and landslide infrastructure.
“With reduced transit times and shipping costs, the PONYNJ becomes more competitive and the better choice for discretionary cargo, particularly those goods destined for the Mid-West,” said Rooney.