NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — The expansion of the Panama Canal to accommodate larger ships likely won't result in much cargo being diverted from West Coast ports to those on the East Coast, but it may result in stiffer competition among East Coast ports, Virginia's top port official said Wednesday.
"I think it's going to be very modest," said John Reinhart, executive director of the Port of Virginia. "This is not going to take a lot of volume off the West Coast and move it east."
Reinhart made the comments at the International Association of Maritime Economists' annual conference, which continues through Friday.
Once completed at the end of 2015, the Panama Canal will be able to handle significantly larger ships from Asia that typically go to West Coast ports in the U.S. now. The project would double the capacity of the 50-mile canal, which carries 5 to 6 percent of world commerce.
Many ports on the East Coast have been scrambling to deepen their harbors to accommodate what are known as post-Panamax ships, although Virginia's is already at the needed 50-foot depth.
He said some of the super-sized cargo ships are already arriving at the East Coast ports that have deep enough water by traveling through the Suez Canal. From China to Virginia, traveling through the Suez Canal is only about 700 miles longer of a trip than traveling through the Panama Canal, he said.
"I don't see this as a major earthshaking event," Reinhart said.
An opportunity exists, however, for a port to be the first or last stop a post-Panamax ship makes, he said. That's because the larger ships will likely make fewer stops in an effort to reduce their costs.
That's the experience found on the West Coast, said Geraldine Knatz, the retired executive director of the Port of Los Angeles.
Knatz also concurred with Reinhart's assessment that West Coast ports don't stand to lose a lot of business to those on the East Coast as a result of the canal's expansion.
"Many of us on the West Coast do not view this as a 'East Coast port versus West Coast port,' but pretty much as a competitive battle among the East Coast port themselves," she said. "That's not to say there's not competition among the various coastlines, but Los Angeles really faces competition on a number of fronts."
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis