Houston port seeking more business from Panama

PANAMA The Panama Canal is an engineering marvel that moves large ships up and down 86 feet as they sail from one ocean to another. And it's getting bigger.

A six-year construction project will build three new locks by the end of 2014 to push ships two and half times as large as it can handle today.

Currently, there are Miraflores locks on the Pacific side of the canal. Just beyond there are hills. They'll be dredged out. That's where the new third lane, which can accommodate much larger ships, will be. It'll then meet up with the existing lanes of traffic on the horizon, just in front of a bridge.

On Wednesday, a delegation from Houston got an up close look at the $5 billion effort.

After the tour, the Port of Houston and the Canal Authority signed a new marketing agreement, a ceremonial but important part of the relationship between Houston and Panama.

We spoke separately with the two men who signed their names to the agreement.

"To anticipate this kind of growth and to see this kind of growth,we've had to plan for it and begin construction quite a few years ahead," Port of Houston Chairman James Edmonds said.

Edmonds says the port is working hard to benefit from the added canal capacity, given that large ships, which now must use the west coast or go around South America, will now be able to sail straight into the Gulf.

"I think it helps big box retailers, other users realize that the canal sanctions the Port of Houston, that it's a partner with the Port of Houston, that it has been in business, if you will, so to speak, with the Port of Houston for many years," Edmonds said.

His counterpart is the man who runs the canal.

"Panama is the only port in the world that has terminals in two oceans," Panama Canal CEO Alberto Aleman Zubieta said.

Zubieta believes Houston is one a few ports in running for a bulk of the new business.

"Houston has the Gulf. It's one of the main ports in the Gulf area. And it's a gateway," Zubieta said. "I think Houston has been advancing very much, it's expanding its port, the capabilities for moving containers. You've got new facilities over there."

Right now, 20 percent of the container traffic that moves through the port comes from the Panama Canal but with the expansion that number could go as high as 35 percent.

It's a boon to Houston that could bring jobs and commerce by the boatload.

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