NYT takes a close look at the Panama Canal expansion

We still don’t know what the final outcome will be in the drive to deepen the channel of the Savannah River in advance of the scheduled 2014 expansion of the Panama Canal, but work is moving ahead in Panama.

There’s an excellent piece about the work in Panama — with some good audio and graphics — in the New York Times: Panama Adding a Wider Shortcut for Shipping.

The overview:

The $5.25 billion project, scheduled for completion in 2014, is the first expansion in the history of the century-old shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific. By allowing much bigger container ships and other cargo vessels to easily reach the Eastern United States, it will alter patterns of trade and put pressure on East and Gulf Coast ports like Savannah, Ga., and New Orleans to deepen harbors and expand cargo-handling facilities.

The confidence and uncertainty regarding Panama’s ability to do the work:

The biggest questions today concern whether, in a country and region marked by official corruption, the canal authority, an autonomous agency of the Panamanian government, can handle such an undertaking. Panama’s vice president, Juan Carlos Varela, was reported to have privately called the project a “disaster” in 2009, according to an American diplomatic memo made public last year by WikiLeaks. Mr. Varela described the main contractors, Spanish and Italian firms, as “weak.”

But authority executives say they have had nothing but support from the government. They claim that the project is on time and under budget, and that the authority has the engineering and management skill to complete it.

Some outsiders agree. “We are quite impressed with how the project is being run,” said Byron Miller, a spokesman for the Port of Charleston in South Carolina, which is spending $1.3 billion over 10 years on improvements to handle the additional cargo from the canal and other routes.

The takeaway:

No one can predict the full impact of the expansion. But for starters, it should mean faster and cheaper shipping of some goods between the United States and Asia.

There is much more in the piece.