Guest Host: Jennifer Golbeck

The Panama Canal, now a century old, is currently undergoing a massive expansion in order to handle the larger ships now in operation. The canal is the fastest way for ships to travel from China and the Far East to ports on the Gulf and East coasts, and bigger ships mean our region’s ports have had to expand to accommodate. We explore what the Panama Canal expansion means for our region’s waterways.


  • Asaf Ashar Research professor, National Ports & Waterways Initiative (NPWI), USA; Independent consultant.
  • Jerry Bridges President, Bridges Group International


  • 13:06:39

    MS. JEN GOLBECKFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland, sitting in for Kojo. Coming up later this hour, a family drama set in the world of professional ballet. But first, the Panama Canal was in its time, one of the most ambitious engineering projects ever undertaken. The 100-year-old link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was originally built in 1914 as a shortcut to help ships avoid having to travel all the way around South America to cross to the Atlantic Ocean.

  • 13:07:19

    MS. JEN GOLBECKAnd now, the Panama Canal is again one of the largest civil engineering projects in the world. It's being expanded to accommodate ships twice the size it can currently handle. That expansion is effecting ports up and down the east coast, including right here in our region. Joining us to discuss, we have Asaf Ashar. He's a research professor with the National Ports and Waterways Initiative USA at the University of New Orleans Transportation Institute and is an independent consultant. Asaf, it's good to have you here.

  • 13:07:49

    MR. ASAF ASHARHi, first, maybe, a little bit of correction. As the new canal supposedly to handle ships three times larger than the existing.

  • 13:08:00

    GOLBECKOh. Well, we'll get -- we'll have you explain all those details in just a minute. Also, joining us by phone, from Virginia Beach, is Jerry Bridges. The former executive director of the Virginia Port Authority and also formerly director of the Port of Oakland. The past chair of The American Association of Port Authorities. He's currently the president of the Bridges Group International. Jerry, it's good to have you.

  • 13:08:21

    MR. JERRY BRIDGESThank you, it's good to be with you.

  • 13:08:24

    GOLBECKSo, Asaf, let's start with you. Why did the Panama Canal need to be expanded?

  • 13:08:28

    ASHARThere are two reasons. One of them is simple capacity. The existing canal is about a 100 years old and you have to expand it, just the road. Now, the second one is the size of ships. Ships grew up, what we call Panamax is a maximum ship that can go through the existing canal, can carry about 5,000 containers. Now the largest ships now plying the oceans are reaching 20,000.

  • 13:09:01

    GOLBECKAnd these containers are like what we see on the back of a tractor trailer or on a railroad car, right?

  • 13:09:06

    ASHARCorrect, yeah.

  • 13:09:07

    GOLBECKThat's a lot of containers.

  • 13:09:09

    ASHARA lot of containers, correct.

  • 13:09:10

    GOLBECKJerry, the largest ship that can pass through the Panama Canal, as Asaf just mentioned, is called the Panamax, but that's far from the largest cargo ship today. Can you give us a sense of the sizes of the ships out there?

  • 13:09:22

    BRIDGESSure, I can try and I'm sure Asaf can jump in there as well. Currently, at the Port of Virginia, ships are up to the 10-11,000 TEU capacity level.

  • 13:09:35

    GOLBECKWhat's a TEU?

  • 13:09:37

    BRIDGESA TEU is a 20 foot equivalent unit. That is a standard of measurement that started, you know, 50 years ago when containerization first came online.

  • 13:09:47

    GOLBECKSo is that about the -- I'm sorry, just to clarify for our listeners and for me. Is that about the size of one of these standard containers that we see?

  • 13:09:55

    BRIDGESThe standard container you see is about 40 feet long. So it's half of one of those.

  • 13:10:00


  • 13:10:01

    BRIDGESSo that's just to put it into perspective. But, yes, post-Panamax ships, they currently go through the Panama Canal, coming to the East Coast of the United States, 5-6,000 PEUs. And as we mentioned earlier, the size that's on the water now can get up to 18,000 PEUs.

  • 13:10:24

    GOLBECKSo we need a lot more space in the Panama Canal to accommodate that.

  • 13:10:29


  • 13:10:30

    GOLBECKIf you want to join the conversation, we would love to have you call. What do you think about federal dollars being sent to prepare East Coasts ports to accommodate these bigger ships? And did you ever wonder how big the container ships are that supply our stores with everything, from electronics to sneakers? You can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850. Or sending us an email to

  • 13:10:54

    GOLBECKSo, Jerry and Asaf, either of you can answer. How many of these really big ships are there? So we're talking about these huge ships, is this common now? Do shipping companies want them?

  • 13:11:03

    ASHARIt's not exactly how many. We're talking about dominance. You know, as the trade, in the world is divided into East, West and North, South. The biggest trade between the U.S. and North America and Asia and Europe and Asia. So if you look at the two trades here, you know, the dominant ship size is larger than the existing canal. Okay, the new canal, as you started to say, and Jerry pointed it correctly, today is 5,000. The new canal or the new Panamax ships will be 13 and a half thousand.

  • 13:11:40

    ASHAROkay, so supposedly, we'll be able to handle much larger ships then today. But not the largest ships that are going between supposedly West Coast of the U.S. and Asia or Asia and Europe.

  • 13:11:54

    GOLBECKNow, those ships are potentially passing through Suez Canal.

  • 13:11:58


  • 13:11:58

    GOLBECKMany of the East Coast ports already accept those ships. So what are some of the tricks that can be used as those big ships come towards the U.S., East Coast?

  • 13:12:08

    ASHARI think, Jerry can address it better.

  • 13:12:10

    GOLBECKOkay, Jerry?

  • 13:12:12

    BRIDGESWell, yes. You're absolutely right. We currently are handling ships that transcending the Suez Canal. But in addition to being able to get here, once they're here, the ports need to have deep water to accommodate those ships. The draft of the ships, of that size, is anywhere from 48 to 52 feet in depth. That is water needed, the water depth needed in order get the ships into the port. Ports also need to have tremendous, tremendously large cranes to work those ships. And they also need to have the rail and the road infrastructure to move that cargo on 's discharged on the docks to move it away from the ports and into the hinterlands, as we called it.

  • 13:13:02

    BRIDGESSo, that's a long answer to say. That while there are ships transcending he Suez Canal that are large, that are calling some of the East Coast port. Not all the ports are able to handle them simply because of the magnitude of all the infrastructure that needs to be developed in order to accommodate them.

  • 13:13:22


  • 13:13:22

    ASHARYeah, let me jump in because Jerry pointed correctly that not all ports will be able to handle the big ships The question for the federal government is which port should be improved, perhaps, because federal monies, as you suggested, is invested in channels. So here is a big quagmire and we have an agency called US, Army Corp for engineers. It's supposed to do studies and you probably read my writing, suggesting that perhaps the methodology that we are using now is flawed.

  • 13:14:01

    GOLBECKTalk to us about which ports have been improved and what kind of money is being spent to do it.

  • 13:14:06

    ASHARIf you look at Jerry's port, Norfolk, is probably the first one to have the 50 foot channel, also Baltimore. The two ports that we have here. Historically, New York, Miami. Now, there are two ports, one port is going to get, not 50 but 47 feet, which is somewhere in-between, who knows. Charleston, I'll talk about Savanna, Charleston. Now we have also Jacksonville and you have also Everglades.

  • 13:14:33

    ASHARSo you might ask, why do we spend so much money, supposedly if we are not in this region. Miami and Everglades are maybe 20 miles apart. Why do we need deep channel or why do we need to spend federal money on two adjacent ports. So this is a major issue because it's lot of money, environmental issues and so on.

  • 13:14:54

    GOLBECKLet's take a couple calls now. Let's start with Peter in Alexandria, Va. Peter, you're on the air, go ahead.

  • 13:15:01

    PETEROne of the things that hasn't been mentioned yet is a military importance of the Panama Canal and shortening the trip of military ships East to West and vice-versa. And also the limitation on the size of Navy ships, particularly the aircraft carrier because of the size of the Panama Canal. Would you discuss those two points, please.

  • 13:15:21

    GOLBECKAsaf, you'd like to comment?

  • 13:15:22

    ASHARYou know, it's a good issue. Because somebody -- when I was part of the initial study of the canal. And the issue of the aircraft carrier was raised because supposedly if we use a canal wide enough for the aircraft carrier, we can save one fleet, one aircraft carrier. However, technically, it's impossible because they're too large. So that's a problem. There's another issue, that while a Navy is causing the canal, you know, there are locks there. So it's a very sensitive point.

  • 13:15:52

    GOLBECKAnd these raise and lower the level of the ships?

  • 13:15:54

    ASHARCorrect. But a ship is locked, cannot move, so it's a very nice target, I would say.

  • 13:15:59

    GOLBECKOh, right, yeah.

  • 13:16:02

    BRIDGESI think, in addition to that, a lot of military support cargo is also carried and containers and on regular commercial ships. And so the widening of that canal also is a big, big benefit to the movement of that cargo from one ocean to the other.

  • 13:16:19

    GOLBECKLet's talk to Herbert in Washington, D.C. Herbert, you're on the air, go ahead.

  • 13:16:24

    HERBERTThank you. One of the questions that issues surrounding the expansion of the cargo freight activity in these eastern ports that I don't think you're call -- your guest has spoken to, is the impact that it will have on rail traffic and potentially truck traffic because that cargo, once it arrives from the port of origin to the United States or the eastern ports, will have to be transported to either distribution centers or the major commercial and consumer markets in the Northeast and Midwest.

  • 13:16:57

    HERBERTAnd one of the concerns that I've heard read, surrounding the expansion, especially with the port of Norfolk being the closest to the Washington Metropolitan region is the expediential increase in cargo and rail transported cargo that will result from the expansion and these larger container ships. And one of the things that I think had to be addressed is, can the existing rail infrastructure handle the volume of cargo that they're anticipating? And what improvements will need to be made to do so?

  • 13:17:33

    HERBERTI know in the Washington region, one of the most controversial rail projects of recent years is the issue of expansion of the Virginia Avenue tunnel in the District of Columbia, for the purpose of being able to accommodate double stacked freight trains being transported through the Washington Metropolitan region. So I'd like to have, possibly, your guest respond to that because unless one -- unless this additional cargo is transported by rail, it's equivalent of one of these larger ships is the equivalent of about 49 miles of truck traffic. And, of course, we can't have that.

  • 13:18:08

    GOLBECKThanks for your question, Herbert. Let's get them to weigh in. I'll have you both comment on that. But, Jerry, let's start with you.

  • 13:18:13


  • 13:18:14

    BRIDGESI think, this caller is absolutely correct in his assessment of the situation. And quite, frankly, I believe that the railroads and the ports are making the necessary investments to address that issue. The Virginia Avenue terminal that he -- tunnel that he spoke of, is a project that is currently underway and been funded by government as well as the CSX railroad. It should be noted, at this point, also, that the Norfolk southern railroad invested several million dollars and opened up what's known as the Heartland Corridor to address this very issue of moving the cargo away from the ports as soon as they come into the port and cutting back on congestion on the highways and freeways.

  • 13:19:05

    BRIDGESIt's also important to note that, quite frankly, more can be done in that area. Most of the rail services are looking at 500 to 4-500 miles to carry cargo. I think we need to maybe restructure and look at how railroads can, maybe, look at shorter distance of haul for some of this cargo to relieve some of the congestions on the freeways. But overall I think the caller's correct. All of these things need to work, the rail, the ports, the roads, they all need to be in -- on a common ground in order for this process to work and for us to be able to service those vessels.

  • 13:19:47

    GOLBECKAsaf, you want to comment?

  • 13:19:48

    ASHARYeah, being the researcher here on the team, I want to mention that congestion has nothing to do with the Panama Canal. The Panama Canal will not create more trade or more cargo. There will be a simple shift which means the stuff that you buy here at the local Target still can come from Norfolk, can come through Los Angeles or comes from Seattle or comes through Canada. Which means you will not buy more stuff at Target because of the Canal. The canal does not create traffic. It just moves the existing traffic more efficiently, most costly -- cost effectively. Thanks.

  • 13:20:33

    GOLBECKThis is a fascinating conversation but we're going to have to leave it at that. Asaf Ashar, research professor with the National Ports and Waterways Initiative. Thanks for joining us. And jerry Bridges, thank you for joining us from Virginia Beach.

  • 13:20:47

    BRIDGESIt's been my pleasure. Thank you for having me on.

  • 13:20:49

    ASHARTake care, Larry (sic) . Bye-bye.

  • 13:20:50

    GOLBECKAfter this short break, we'll talk with Maggie Shipstead about her new novel "Astonish Me." You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" and I'm Jen Golbeck sitting in for Kojo.

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