America's East Coast ports are finally seeing the arrival of the hulking, post-Panamax-size container ships that began steaming through the delayed Panama Canal expansion project in late June.
On Thursday, the port of Charleston, S.C., welcomed the Hannover Bridge, a "K" Line Group vessel capable of carrying 8,500 twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) boxes that is the first post-Panamax-size vessel to reach the port after sailing through the expanded canal.
The canal opened for business on June 26 after 10 years of construction that cost $5.4 billion and ran two years over schedule. The project installed a new set of locks on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides, created a new lane of traffic, and enlarged existing channels. Those changes will support two and a half times the previous vessel capacity, featuring enormous, 13,000-TEU "neo-Panamax" ships.
Industry analysts are watching closely to measure the effect of these changes on cargo flow between manufacturing sites in Asia and prosperous markets in the eastern U.S. In one scenario, freight carriers from Asia could use the canal as a maritime shortcut to sail directly to East Coast destinations, bypassing traditional West Coast ports, where cargo is shifted to transcontinental trucks and trains to reach the East.
Time will tell the full impact of the canal expansion, but in the meantime, East Coast ports are cheering the extra business they are handling thanks to additional freight arriving at their docks, according to a statement from the South Carolina Ports Authority (SCPA).
"SCPA is already benefiting from the upsizing of vessels in response to the expansion, with 16 of the 26 weekly container-vessel calls in Charleston now being served by large ships formerly known as post-Panamax," SCPA President and CEO Jim Newsome said in a statement.
"The arrival of the first 8,500-class vessel to pass through the newly expanded Panama Canal locks bound for Charleston is a milestone for our port and maritime industry. We look forward to seeing this larger class of vessels more frequently in our harbor," Newsome said.
Charleston port officials are already preparing for the arrival of an even larger, 14,000-TEU vessel later this year, and are continuing with plans to dredge the harbor so it can accept ships with drafts of 52 feet, four feet deeper than the current limit.