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Houston preparing for Panama Canal expansion

Friday, June 24, 2011

An expansion of the Panama Canal is set to bring more business to Houston. But can our port handle it? Preparations are being considered for the extra traffic.

The Panama Canal expansion is the world's largest current construction project. It is a six year, $5 billion undertaking that will greatly increase the already busy traffic here that sails from all over the world.

Cargo ships are measured by what's called TEUs, or twenty foot equivalent units. One TEU is about the size of what an 18-wheeler can carry. Here at the Panama Canal, they can handle ships about the size of 5,000 TEUs. But when the expansion is complete in three years, that size will more than double.

Three short years before the new lanes are open, but some 1,700 miles away will Houston and it's port be ready for the opportunity?

"I think Houston, being one of the closest ports to the canal, has a great potential," said Brad Walker of E-ndeavour Program Management.

Walker is an analyst from Houston doing work for the canal as it looks at how the expansion will change its business. He says Houston could be in the perfect spot to cash in.

"Absolutely. Significant. Very significant," Walker said. "There are quite a bit of things that need to be in place for that both inside the fence and outside the fence in the ports."

Those things include further dredging of the ship channel to clean out silt and standardize its depth to accommodate the much larger ships. It means adding rail lines and further expansion at Bayport. All of which could cost billions of dollars. And some of which is already underway in anticipation of the canal's expansion.

"We're moving forward and trying to take care of that issue. We're well on our way to being ready for this. So we're in a good place," said Ricky Kunz of the Port of Houston Authority.

Kunz is part of a delegation from Houston here this week to renew a marketing agreement with the Panama Canal and to further understand what Houston needs to do to prepare.

"Bayport is being built out to accept the larger ships. Distribution centers are being built to distribute, for example, consumer goods to the local area as well as middle America," said Kunz.

The work here in Panama is done in 2014 after decades of planning and years of work. And while it seems Houston is already preparing for that date, the work in southeast Texas is far from over if our region is truly hoping to benefit in the way it affects us most.

"It means jobs. Creation of jobs and economic benefit for the city, for the county, for the state of Texas," Kunz said.

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port of houston, local, tom abrahams
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