Panama canal expansion officially opens Sunday

PANAMA CANAL, Panama, June 25 (UPI) — The Panama Canal looks to shore up its “relevancy” on June 26, with the official opening of a new set of locks that will allow super-sized cargo ships to use the passageway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The Panama Canal Authority welcomes the first super-sized ship through the $5.4 billion deeper, wider set of locks on Sunday, which are expected to double the cargo capacity of the canal of the 100-year-old manmade shipping route.

The nine-year project to expand the canal is expected to shift and improve trade both to the United States and around the world, because larger ships will now be able to more easily travel between the Atlantic and Pacific, and was considered essential to keeping the canal relevant, representatives of the authority said.

“We knew for a long time we had to think about expanding, otherwise we would lose relevancy in the world,” Ilya R. Espino de Marotta, who oversees the project for the Panama Canal Authority, told the Los Angeles Times. “We were being maxed out.”

Construction on the original canal was started in 1881 by the French, but after decades of mismanagement and thousands of deaths, the United States took over in 1904, finishing construction and opening it to business in 1914. Since then, cargo ships have gotten much bigger, leading to plans in 2007 to start an expansion.

The expansion features the addition of two entrances with larger locks to allow for bigger ships, which will be guided through the entrances of the canal by four tugboats and assisted through each lock by two tugboats, rather than the locomotives the original locks use.

At points during each ship’s path through the canal — which has been dredged and widened in many areas to give room to the bigger boats — they will also be assisted by tugboats and additional guidance.

The canal expansion opens to normal commercial traffic on Monday, and while more than 150 trips through them have been scheduled through the rest of the year, the plan is to ease the entrances into use by limiting them to four passages per day, the Miami Herald reports.

The original canal entrances allow 35 to 40 ships through the canal per day, and will continue to do so, with plans for both sets of locks to operate simultaneously, eventually doubling the number of ships that can use the canal.

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