Traffic already is bustling at the canal, too. The number of shipping containers aboard freighters transiting the canal has risen from 200,000 in 1995 to 6.6 million last year.
Once the third lane opens, mammoth ships will take advantage of economies of scale to carry containers for the Wal-Marts and Targets of the world.
One problem is some of the ports along the Atlantic Seaboard dont have channels deep enough to handle such seagoing behemoths.
Thats why the White House announced July 19 that it had issued orders to expedite dredging projects to deepen harbors and approaches in Miami, Jacksonville, Fla., Savannah, Ga., Charleston, S.C., and the Port of New York and New Jersey.
Its not only about the ports, Aleman said. Its the roads, the trains, the distribution centers and actually its about jobs.
With bigger ships, bottlenecks can happen.
The bigger a vessel is and the more cargo it carries, the slower it is to load and unload. So the ports become more important, said Francisco Bustamante, a former economist for the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington and an expert on trade.
The widening of the canal will affect trade across Latin America.
Very large ships carrying coal from northeastern Colombia and iron ore from Brazil will soon be able to take the raw material to China through Panama more cheaply, giving a boost to those industries and creating jobs. Chilean copper producers will find it easier to export to European markets.
Theres LNG (liquefied natural gas) coming out of Trinidad & Tobago today that goes to Chile, and that has to go around the Cape, Aleman said. Once the canal expansion is completed, it can go through the canal, shaving hundreds of sea miles from the trip to Chile.
Panama, a diminutive country of 3.5 million people, took a huge risk financing the canal widening. But the payoff will be bountiful.
The United States ran the canal as a break-even operation. Once Panama took over in 1999, it increased tolls to make a profit. This year, the canal will contribute $1 billion to government coffers. By 2025, projections are for Panama to earn $4 billion a year from the tolls.
With the widening, Panama also hopes to transform itself from just a transit point for cargo into a logistical hub where ships can be overhauled in dry dock, containers sorted for onward passage and industrial parks set up for final assembly of goods.
Already, major multinationals, including Caterpillar, Procter & Gamble, Dell and Mexicos Cemex have turned to Panama as a headquarters for regional operations.
All of America is coming here to Panama, said Adolfo Quintero, an economist at the University of Panama.
Positioned as the geographic center of the Americas, Panama also boasts five fiber-optic trunk cables, giving it the best digital connectivity in the Western Hemisphere outside the United States. Its airline offers flights to 29 countries, more than any other hub in the region.
The nation is bustling as new port complexes are being built on both the Atlantic and Pacific ends of the canal.
On the canal itself, pilots await a new era of mega-ships inching ever so carefully through the locks on the larger third lane.
There are lots of questions about how currents, wind and the hydrodynamics (of the locks) will work, said master towboat Capt. Gerardo Martinez, one of 230 tugboat pilots guiding ships through the canal.
The one sure thing, he added, is the stress will be bigger.
Widening the Panama Canal