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Panama Canal locked into success under shared US-Panama control

The Panama Canal is working just fine, thank-you! Sixteen months after the United States begin sharing responsibility for operating the waterway with Panama, there is little but good to relate.

Despite a forecast of a vast array of problems when the joint operation began Oct. 1, 1979, "Our only problem is one of success," says a high canal official.

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That problem has been a traffic glut, causing major backups on both the Atlantic and Pacific ends of the waterway.

Starting in August, more ships began arriving daily than the canal could handle.* While size determines the number of vessels that go through each day, a normal day's traffic amounts to between 38 and 40 oceangoing ships.

By mid-October the backlog was mammoth -- the largest in history.

On Oct. 16, there were 182 ships awaiting transit. Waiting time alone was sometimes 80 hours; normally, wait and transit average 20 hours together.

It took weeks to work down the backlog, but now the operation is more or less back to normal. Canal officials, however, are predicting another increase in the number of transits and say that high backlogs could occur again.

Politically, however, there is concern that the US Congress is hovering too close to canal operations. And although there was considerable concern here that President Reagan, who had been a bitter opponent of the canal treaty, would throw a wrench into full implementation of the treaty, this subsided when he announced he would carry out treaty terms.

Last fall's surge in transits was a result of a combination of factors: unusually high grain sales to Mexico and China by the US; a big increase in Alaskan oil moving through the canal; and Japanese purchases of US coal in place of normal supplies from Australia, which was hit by a coal workers strike.

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Those factors are not likely to occur together in the future.

"But there could be other combinations," notes a canal official, "and there likely will be."

Anticipating such occurrences, the Panama Canal Commission, as the joint Panama-US organization is known, has begun capital spending for towing locomotives and other equipment that earlier it had not planned to start until 1982.

In addition, high-intensity lighting has been installed at Miraflores locks on the Pacific end of the canal to allow an extra hour's work. The biggest of ships can only go through in daylight hours. Until now they could not begin their movement through the locks until 6:00 or 6:30 a.m. Now they can start at 5 :00 or 5:30.

Similar lighting will also be put in at the Gatun Locks at the Atlantic end of the canal.

But those large ships present canal authorities with another dilemma: The number of pilots needed for each vessel can go as high as four. That total is straining the corps of pilots, most of whom are recruited in the US.* Recruiting teams are regularly going out to look for pilots, who are among the highest paid people in the canal operation.

But a 29.3 percent increase in tolls, which took place when the joint Panama-US operation got under way, has given the canal a cushion in operating expenses. Likewise, the increased volume of shipping has helped increase revenue.

In 1979, revenue from tolls reached $210 million. In 1980 it yielded $294 million.

The average toll is currently $16,109 per ship. But a vessel like the Queen Elizabeth II, which made her seventh transit through the waterway a year ago, paid the highest toll on record -- $89,154.62.

The big cargo liners and tankers -- but not the supertankers, since they are too broad of beam to go through the locks -- also pay large tolls.

There will be an eventual cutback in the number of medium-size tankers going through the canal is likely through the years ahead if a $300 million pipeline project across the isthmus of Panama is completed.

Groundbreaking has yet to occur, but officials of a consortium set up to build the pipeline say it will take place within a month. The project, to be completed three years from now, would carry the oil from tankers docking on the Pacific side of the isthmus to awaiting ships on the Atlantic side.

Some canal officials worry that this will take business away from the waterway. But others see the increasing traffic over the next few years as offsetting whatever losses occur when the pipeline goes into operation.

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