In a development that further reconfigures the U.S. commercial transportation network into international free trade structures, the Port of New Orleans is positioning itself to receive containers from China through the Panama Canal, taking advantage of links to emerging NAFTA superhighways.
New Orleans will benefit from a 2003 joint marketing Memorandum of Understanding agreement with the Panama Canal Authority when the canal opens a third set of expanded locks in 2014.
The new locks are designed to accommodate the new post-Panamax ships currently being constructed to ship containers from Far East ports, including those in China and Japan.
WND previously documented the movement of U.S. manufacturing to China under free trade structures which include the World Trade Organization, North American Free Trade Agreement and the Central America Free Trade Agreement. Also, WND has reported on the Trans-Texas Corridor as an example of how U.S. transportation infrastructure is being re-configured into NAFTA superhighways designed to accommodate an increasing flow of containers from China.
Opening Mexican ports such as L?zaro Cardenas to container ships from China and the Far East is a first step to creating a mid-continent port alternative to West Coast ports such as Los Angeles and Long Beach. Opening the Panama Canal to post-Panamex ships is the next step required to lower the U.S. cost of transporting containers from China and the Far East.
The idea is to open a southern water route for Chinese and Far East cargo ships to deliver containers to Gulf and East Coast ports for inter-modal truck and rail transport into the heartland.
“The Panama Canal is very important to the Port of New Orleans,” Chris Bonura, communications manager of the Port of New Orleans, told WND. “Just because of geography, if you want to get from the Far East to the Port of New Orleans, you have to go through the Panama Canal. So, this expansion project will be beneficial to the Port of New Orleans, and truly to all the ports in the Gulf of Mexico.”
The current Panama Canal can only handle container ships carrying up to 4,000 20-foot containers, or TEUs (Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units) according to shipping industry terminology. Right now, the major route for post-Panamax Far East container ships coming from Japan or China is to reach the East Coast of the U.S. by passing through the Suez Canal and crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
The plan to build a third set of locks capable of handling larger 12,000 TEU post-Panamax ships was approved by a national referendum held in Panama on Oct. 22, 2006. According to master plans posted on its website, the Panama Canal Authority expects to have its third set of locks to accommodate post-Panamax container ships by the project’s scheduled completion date in 2014.
“A lot of shippers are trying to avoid the congestion on the West Coast,” Bonura explained to WND. “We believe the Panama Canal is an alternative and the Port of New Orleans is positioned to take advantage of that alternative.”
Bonura explained to WND that the Mississippi River is the main channel for the Port of New Orleans.
“The Mississippi River is maintained to a depth of 45 feet,” Bonura said, “and we believe we can serve as a conduit through the Mississippi River to the whole middle section of the United States.”
Bonura explained that instead of coming to the East Coast or West Coast and carrying containers into the center of the U.S. by train or truck, “we believe we have a direct route through the Mississippi River to go right up into the nation’s heartland.”
“On the Mississippi River, you can get to 30 states without touching dry land,” he said.
“The whole concept of the transport of containers on barges has not taken off as much in the United States as it has in Europe,” Bonura conceded. “Still, there are various types of cargo that are not time-sensitive, and there is a considerable cost savings to barge transport. The Mississippi River adds a dimension to the Port of New Orleans that make us truly a full inter-modal, allowing for containers to be transferred to barges, trucks, or rail for transport into the interior of the country.
Shippers at New Orleans have a full range of modal choices once their cargo arrives by truck, train and barge,” Bonura stressed.
Six trunk railroads are connected to the Port of New Orleans, Bonura added, including the Burlington Northern, Norfolk Southern, Canadian National, Union Pacific, CSX and Kansas City Southern.
“These rail lines establish a direct route from New Orleans though the Midwest and on up into rail lines in Canada that stretch to both the East Coast and West Coast in Canada,” he said.
Jim Kvedaras, senior manager of U.S. public and government affairs for Canadian National, told WND the railroad was open to working with the Port of New Orleans.
Asked whether CN could handle increased container traffic moving through an expanded Panama Canal, Kvedaras was very positive.
“Our inter-modal department believes were are positioned to move any container traffic from the Panama Canal that the Port of New Orleans can bring our way,” Kvedaras said.
“Assuming that the port can get the container traffic to us, CN has capacity available to handle increased container volume right now,” Kvedaras continued. “So, the message is, that if the Port of New Orleans can bring the container traffic on through the Panama Canal, then bring it on. If this plan results in more traffic, then we hope to compete for a piece of it, as much as we can handle.”
The Port of New Orleans is aware it needs to make many improvements to accommodate post-Panamax container ships, Bonuras said.
The port is now seeking funding for a second phase to expand post-Panamax capacity at it Napoleon Avenue Container Terminal, considered a state-of-the-art facility.
Yet, the Texas ports on the Gulf plan to compete with Port of New Orleans for post-Panamax container traffic coming through an expanded Panama Canal.
Cambridge Systematics, Inc., in an October 2006 study prepared for the Texas Department of Transportation has argued the Trans-Texas Corridor is positioned to allow Texas ports, including Houston and Corpus Christi, to benefit from the increased Gulf Coast container traffic anticipated once the expanded Panama Canal opens in 2014.
The world’s largest container ship is the Danish M/S Emma Maersk, with an 11,000 TEU capacity. The Emma Maersk is fully computerized, capable of being operated by a crew of 13 people.
The post-Panamax fleet in service at the end of 2000 consisted of some 300 containerships. Experts expect that containerships with 9,000 to 10,000 TEU capacity will soon dominate main arterial shipping, such as between China and the U.S. Containerships with 12,000 TEU plus capacity will be phased into operation between 2009 and 2010.
Bonura also told WND general cargo volumes at the Port of New Orleans have exceeded pre-Katrina levels since March 2006. Overall, the port’s total general cargo volumes measured for the first 11 months of 2006 are up 21.3 percent, compared to the same period one year ago.
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