What wasn't so clear is who will be the winners and who will lose when the expanded canal is ready to handle a new generation of big ships in mid-2015.
The three-day TOC Container Supply Chain: Americas conference and exhibition, with panels on everything from the shipment of perishables to port design, continues through today at the Miami Airport Convention Center. PortMiami is the host of the hemispheric conference for the first time in a dozen years.
Ports throughout the Americas are rushing to prepare for the day when post-Panamax ships that are too long, too wide and too heavy for the current canal begin to cross the Isthmus of Panama. On the U.S. East Coast only Baltimore and Norfolk, Va., have channels deep enough to handle the fully loaded big ships.
PortMiami, which plans to begin dredging its harbor next month, and New York are expected to be the next ports ready for post-Panamax traffic, but other East Coast ports, such as Port Everglades, are in the process of trying to gain federal permission to deepen their shipping channels.
"Do they have the environmental impact studies or the federal funding? Naw, I don't think so," scoffed Ken Uriu, marketing manager at California's Port of Long Beach, the second largest container port in the United States.
Long Beach is already a deep water port with 76 feet of water draft in its main channel. In contrast, PortMiami is dredging to a depth of 50 to 52 feet to handle the big ships that are becoming an industry standard. Nearly 50 percent of ships on order by the world's major carriers are too big for the current Panama Canal.
"We realize with the Panama Canal expansion there is a lot of competition out there," said Uriu. But he said Long Beach has the advantage and "is the port of the future."
East Coast ports would take issue with that.
The reality is that West Coast ports' share of containerized cargo is declining, said John Martin, president of port consulting firm Martin & Associates. A 10-day strike that closed the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in 2002 prompted a major shift of cargo toward East Coast ports.
Shipping lines have choices these days.
Products headed for the East Coast of the United States from southern Asia ports tend to go through the Suez Canal. Goods produced north of Singapore are more likely to go through the Panama Canal, Martin said. Although China still dominates Asian production, the strongest growth rates are in south Asia in countries such as Vietnam, Sri Lanka and India that are more likely to use the Suez Canal, according to Martin.
And Asian shipments also can go across the Pacific direct to U.S. West Coast ports where they are carried East by railroads. The water-rail/truck routes are quicker but more expensive than all-water passages to East Coast ports.
Most of the vessels that transit the current canal carry between 4,500 and 5,000 TEUs -- the equivalent of standard 20-foot containers. The expansion will mean that ships carrying as many as 13,000 containers will be able to use the canal.
A 13,800-TEU ship, the MSC Beatrice, has already called in Long Beach. It's too wide to fit through even an expanded canal, Uriu said. And, he said, Maersk Line and China Shipping already have 18,000 TEU vessels on order.
Latin America and Caribbean ports also are hoping to benefit as trans-shipment points when the canal expansion is complete. Ports in Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica, Jamaica, the Bahamas and Cuba are either expanding or have plans for expansion. And Panama itself wants to capture a bigger share of trans-shipment business.
Industry analysts said Panama, which can supply both Atlantic and Pacific coasts, has the most chance of success but not all the other Latin American and Caribbean ports with trans-shipment plans will be viable.
Meanwhile, the shipping industry also is changing, and some of today's carriers may not be around to use an expanded Panama Canal.
"Collectively, the carrier industry has been hard hit," said John Carver, executive vice president of business development for Ports America. Together, the 15 largest publicly traded container carriers lost $700 million in 2012. Over the past six years, he said, only three of them have been profitable. Some of the lines that are unable to compete, he said, "may fall out."
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