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Alabama Port Already Bulked Up for World’s Giant, Post-Panamax Ships

A 45-foot channel and a turning basin large enough for 1,200-foot ships have helped the Port of Mobile prepare for Post-Panamax ships.

A 45-foot channel and a turning basin large enough for 1,200-foot ships have helped the Port of Mobile prepare for Post-Panamax ships.

If anything concerns the Alabama State Port Authority, it isn’t the Port of Mobile’s ability to handle the increase in volume of larger ships expected in the wake of an expansion at the Panama Canal.

The canal is in the latter stages of a $5.2 billion expansion that will accommodate so-called Post-Panamax ships — those that are too large to pass through the canal’s existing locks but can traverse the waterway once the expansion is complete. The expansion will allow passage to ships significantly taller, wider and longer than the present maximum size.

The expanded canal will be able to handle ships carrying 13,000 TEUs (20-foot equivalent units), up from its current level of 5,000 TEUs. The canal is expecting an increase of 2,000 ships annually. As a result, ports along the Gulf Coast and Eastern seaboard are expecting to see more Post-Panamax ships, and the Port of Mobile is well positioned for that scenario.

“We’ve got a 45-foot (deep) channel, which is sufficient for most Post-Panamax ships,” says James Lyons, director and CEO of the Alabama State Port Authority. “We also built a $40-million turning basin about five years ago, which allows us to handle ships more than 1,200 feet long. From a channel standpoint, we’re in good shape for handling ships that can come through the Panama Canal. In fact, we’re actually handling ships of that size today that are coming out of Europe. So, we’ve got a proven ability to handle the large ships.”

Lyons says that cranes in the state’s container terminal are capable of handling ships carrying more than 10,000 TEUs, and two more cranes, each able to do about 14,000 TEUs, are being added. The terminal’s land area also is being increased. The ASPA is spending about $36 million for an intermodal handling facility that will allow the port to move containers in and out of Mobile on rail cars.

“In a sense, we’re ready for the larger ships today, but we’re also spending money to accommodate the additional volume that will come to Mobile as a result of what’s going on in Panama,” Lyons says. “Our changes will be in place by the end of 2016 to accommodate the growth. It isn’t going to be an all-of-a-sudden thing where someone flips a switch and we double in size. We already see the larger ships today coming out of Europe, but we’ll see those same larger ships coming out of the Asian trade lanes in the future. But the increase will be incremental.”

Charlie Ingram and Chad Riley are freelancers for Business Alabama. Ingram is based in Birmingham and Riley in Mobile.

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