Digging Deeper: U.S. Ports Expand to Keep Up with Panama Canal

by | 14 June 2016

In our modern world of instant communication and same-day delivery, we often forget that the primary method used to transport goods around the globe is large bulk cargo ships.  To keep up with demand from foreign trade, container ships are growing larger and larger—and more cost effective. These massive ships are often pictured densely stacked with standard sized containers measured in TEU*—the “20-foot equivalent unit” intermodal boxes you see on ships, trains and the back of trucks. In 2000, the maximum size of a container ship was 8,160 TEU. By 2017, it will increase to 21,100 TEU.

These larger sizes have led to a massive expansion project at the Panama Canal, which increased TEU capacity to over 12,000. While West Coast ports have natural harbors that can handle the new generation of cargo ships, East Coast ports are on expansion mode to deepen their harbors to handle the ships crossing the canal.

The map below looks at the fifteen largest ports in the US; some can currently meet the needs of these new super cargo vessels, some are close and some still have a ways to go. The race to quench demand of a growing e-commerce consumer base begins at the ports. To the victor go the spoils: more jobs, population growth, and improved real estate fundamentals for the foreseeable future.

Legend:

  • Triple-E Class (18,000 TEU)
  • Post New Panamax (15,000 TEU)
  • New Panamax (12,500 TEU)
  • Post Panamax Plus (6,000 TEU)
  • Panamax or Less (4,500 TEU)

*TEU stands for Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit, which can be used to measure a ship’s cargo-carrying capacity. The dimensions of one TEU are equal to that of a standard 20′ shipping container: 20 feet long, 8 feet tall.

James Breeze is National Director of Industrial Research for Colliers International in the United States. Based in the Greater Los Angeles area, he prepares quarterly and specialized industrial research reports and interprets trends and data across the country.