A $5.3 Billion Expansion Project: My April 2012 Trip to the Panama Canal

Shannon in front of the locks, where the slide gates will go.

I attended the National Ports and Harbor Committee of the American Society of Civil Engineers – Coasts, Oceans, Port, and River Institute annual spring meeting in Panama City, Panama, in April 2012. The meeting was held concurrently with the Panama Canal 2012 International Engineering and Infrastructure Congress. A highlight of the trip was a tour of the new Panama Canal Expansion Project hosted by the Panama Canal Authority.

Shannon in front of the locks, where the slide gates will go.

The $5.3 Billion Panama Canal expansion project, begun in 2006, is well underway. The expansion project includes construction of two new lock complexes each with three lock chambers, one complex on the Atlantic side and one complex on the Pacific side of the canal. Each lock complex will raise and lower ships transiting the canal by over 90 feet, the difference in elevation between Lake Gatun, located in the central portion of the canal, and the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean on each side of the canal.

Background: Existing channel.
Foreground: Excavation for new channel.

The existing Panama Canal locks have a width of approximately 110 feet, a length of 1,050 feet, and a depth of 41.2 feet. These will remain in operation. The new locks and channel will double the capacity of the canal and allow for an increase in the size of ships that can utilize the canal.  They will have a width of 180 feet, a length of 1,400 feet, and a depth of 60 feet. This expansion will increase the size of container ships able to transit the canal from a 5,000-TEU (22-foot equivalent container) ship capacity to a 12,000-TEU ship capacity.

A perspective on scale.

With the expansion will be water-saving basins that will reduce the water usage in the locks by up to 60 percent. The basins on the Pacific side complex are being constructed where excavations from a previous attempt to expand the canal occurred.

There is extensive excavation underway for new access channels to the new locks and dredging to deepen the entrances to the canal and Lake Gatun. Excavation of the canal expansion includes removal of over 170 million cubic yards of material, enough to fill the Empire State Building nearly 130 times. The amount of earth removal and the size of the trucks and equipment being used to excavate the channels were quite impressive.

The amount of design that went into the project and the construction work that was going on at both the Atlantic and Pacific sites is incredible. The new lock and channel systems originally scheduled for completion in 2014 are a bit behind schedule but will hopefully be open by 2015. A return trip to Panama in 2015 to see the finished canal expansion is certainly on my list of things to do.

Excavation of new locks on the Atlantic side.
Excavation of new locks on Pacific side.


  1. Good article Shannon. I got to go there about 3 years ago, and all they were doing was dredging and general earthwork, so there wasn’ t much to see. This is definitely a major public works project on a grand scale that will change the face of global shipping for generations to come. -John K.