Despite initial fears about Panamas ability to run the canal after the handover, the canal authority has proved up to the task and the canal is a source of national pride.
a sense of pride
Idania Fuentes spends her days flipping signs that say alto (stop) and siga (go) to prevent accidents at an intersection near the access channel excavation. Pickup trucks zip by, as do old school buses carrying workers to construction sites and dump trucks loaded with excavated rock to be crushed.
Sincerely I feel proud about being out here and working on this expansion project, she said.
This year, the canal will contribute close to $1 billion to the Panamanian government a figure that Quijano expects to double 10 years beyond completion of the expansion.
The authority charges as much as $400,000 for a container ship to use the canal and its working out fees for the new locks.
We need to make sure we attract volume, so we dont want to charge prices that will be too high, said Rodolfo R. Sabonge, vice president for market research and analysis. He said the fee schedule also needs to provide enough incentive so shippers will continue to send smaller ships through the current locks rather than switching all their cargo to post-Panamax vessels.
The canal authority began exploring an expansion in 1998 and spent $40 million commissioning more than 150 studies to come up with its plan. Panamanian voters approved the costly project in a referendum held on Oct. 22, 2006, and work began the next year.
Currently three sets of locks two on the Pacific side and one on the Atlantic side help ships step up or down to the water level of Gatún Lake, an artificial lake that is 85 feet above sea level, and theyll continue to function for smaller ships after the expansion is completed.
The expanded section will use much of the existing canal, whose channels are being dredged to make them wider and deep enough for post-Panamax ships, but it will operate with just a single set of locks on the Pacific side instead of the current two.
Where old and new come together
To connect the new Pacific locks to the original canal, a 3.8-mile access channel that runs parallel to the current canal is being dug. As dump trucks carried out boulders from the excavation, the Cap Castillo, a container ship flagged in Monrovia, appeared to float on the horizon as it made its way through the nearby Pedro Miguel locks.
This is the only place along the 50-mile length of the canal where the old and new come together so dramatically.
Since the expansion began, some 25,000 people, about 90 percent of them Panamanian, have worked on various phases of the project.
Despite the scope of the expansion, it is still far different from the last century when steam shovels gouged the channel out of the jungle with dirt trains running on tracks along the bottom of the trench to haul out tons of rock and earth.
Workers had to blast through the rock of Culebra Cut and tens of thousands of laborers most from Barbados and other Caribbean islands succumbed to malaria, yellow fever, precarious living conditions and the perils of carrying boxes of unstable dynamite during the failed French attempt at building the canal and the Americans later engineering success.
Since the expansion began, there have been four deaths.