By Global Public Square staff
We know that China does infrastructure better than anyone in the world. Their trains, their roads, their airports, their subways have been built at amazing speed on a grand scale and with great foresight. Well, the next great Chinese infrastructure project is a canal. But this canal won't link two Chinese cities together with a waterway. This canal will link the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.
Yes, we have one of those already, in Panama. But a Chinese company wants to help build another one. The "HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co. Ltd." will help finance a Nicaraguan canal at a total cost of about $40 billion.
Geographically, a canal there might seem to make sense. It's just 12 miles from the Pacific to Lake Nicaragua...and from the lake a river flows to the Caribbean...and thus to the Atlantic. But we don't know if that's the route the canal would take.
For Nicaragua as a nation, the canal seems to make sense. The canal's proponents claim that the effort would almost double the nation's per capita GDP, which last year was just $3,300. But why build a canal when we already have another one just a few hundred miles away?
Well, here's one reason: there's so much demand for the Panama Canal that between waiting time and transiting, the average time to get through the canal is more than 25 hours.*
Here's another: the biggest cargo ships that can go through the Panama Canal are called "Panamax." Each Panamax ship can carry about 4500 shipping containers. But there are newer, bigger ships, called post-Panamax. The newest ships on the block – so-called "Triple E's" – can hold more than 18,000 containers...that's four times the capacity of a Panamax ship.
Watch the video for what shipbuilder Maersk says 18,000 containers would look like stacked in Times Square. The first "Triple E" will be delivered on June 28. These ships obviously have to find other routes since the Panama Canal can't accommodate them...and that's exactly what they are doing.
In the meantime, Panama is frantically trying to revamp its canal to accommodate bigger ships (but it still won't be able to accommodate the biggest ships). This massive effort will just about double the canal's capacity...and cost more than $5 billion.
Now, when the Panama Canal is widened – and if the Nicaragua Canal project actually comes to fruition – those post-Panamax ships will obviously need somewhere to dock to pick up goods and to drop them off.
And therein lays the problem for the United States.
By 2015, when the enlargement of the Panama Canal is expected to be complete, only 10 of the Unites States' approximately 55 major commercial ports will be ready for the bigger ships, according to KC Conway, chief economist for the United States for Colliers International.
But will that be enough? Listen to this:
In just 18 years times, 60 percent to 70 percent of shipping will be on the bigger post-Panamax ships, says Conway, the author of Colliers' North American Port Analysis. And a report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says that over the next 30 years, U.S. imports are expected to grow four-fold and exports more than seven-fold.
The U.S. needs to keep up with that demand and to stay competitive with the rest of the worlds' ports. And yet, the American Society of Civil Engineers gives America's ports a C rating.
That shouldn't be the case. The U.S. collects a federal harbor maintenance tax of about 0.1 percent on each container that comes into port. That money is supposed to go back to the waterways, most importantly, perhaps, helping U.S. ports stay competitive. But for the last twenty years Congress has diverted more than half of those funds, Conway of Colliers says.
Congress does not seem to understand that this kind of spending is an investment in the nation's future economic growth. If we don't modernize our ports, the new big ships won't dock there and we will be the losers.
*An earlier version of this piece had an incorrect average wait time to get through the Panama Canal. The Panama Canal authority’s own figures say that the average is 25.66 hours for waiting time and transiting combined.