March 23, 2016 10:11 AM, EDT
Panama Canal Expansion Seen Open by July After Years of Setbacks
Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg News

The expansion of the Panama Canal, a $5.3 billion project almost two years behind schedule and plagued by cost overruns and contractor disputes, is expected to be opened by the end of June, according to the agency that operates the waterway.

The Panama Canal Authority has resolved problems associated with contractors and seepage from the new locks discovered during testing, said Jose Ramon Arango, senior international trade specialist at the agency that operates the 50-mile waterway connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. The authority is planning a test of the new locks with a tanker in May, he said at a shipping conference in Stamford, Connecticut, organized by the Connecticut Maritime Association.

The expansion may shift international trade routes, allowing ships to reach Asia from the U.S. Gulf Coast more than two weeks faster than they would going east through the Suez Canal. It’ll make room for vessels with the capacity to carry 12,600 containers, almost three times what the existing locks permit, and will be able to handle tankers carrying liquefied natural gas.

“We have had some problems with the contractors and also some problems with seepage — all of that has been resolved,” Arango said at the conference March 22. “We expect that, by the end of June or by early July, we will open the canal.”

Shipments through the canal may rise to 360 million tons in 2017 following the project’s completion, after already reaching a record 340.8 million tons in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, the authority said in October. The expansion has spurred a series of port and infrastructure upgrades throughout the Caribbean and the U.S. East Coast as docks make room for bigger vessels.

The project was 97% done as of March 22, with testing and the construction of minor structures accounting for the remaining 3%, Arango said.