Debra K. Rubin
Expansion design-build contract will cover 60% of total project cost.

The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) announced Aug. 17 its selection of CH2M Hill Cos., Denver, to be program manager for the $5.25–billion expansion of the historic waterway. The firm had been competing against Parsons Brinckerhoff, New York City, and URS Holdings Inc., San Francisco for the management role, which will involve assisting the agency in overseeing the design–build effort to build two new lock structures able to handle larger "post–Panamax"–size vessels.

ACP based its decision on "best value," with much weight attached to experience levels of each contender's "core team" of managers in structural and mechanical engineering and design–build, says Jorge de la Guardia, executive manager of the locks program. "We wanted to be careful not to give an advantage to any company already here," he says. Heading up the CH2M team is program manager Jhan Schmidtz, who formerly served as program manager for the 6.4–billion–dollar Chek Lap Kok airport in Hong Kong. The CH2M Hill team is set to begin in its role next week, and is expected to have a staff of about 33, officials say.

But the attention of international competitors is already turning to the locks construction contract, which will make up 60% of the canal expansion program, says de la Guardia. ACP is now finalizing requirements for its request for qualifications for the contract, which it expects to issue in about two weeks. "As soon as the PM gets here, we will start reviewing performance specs for the structures," says de la Guardia. Bidders would then have about two months to prepare proposals. ACP says it only plans to prequalify five teams.

With as many as ten teams that have expressed interest in the construction contract , the competition should be an interesting one. Teams are still in formation, but De la Guardia says one team that is likely to propose is a joint venture of Bilfinger + Berger and Hochtief, both German, with France's Vinci. Also in the running are three large Brazilian contractors, including Camargo Correa, possibly teamed with France's Alstom. Among others likely to lead teams are Brazil's Odebrecht, Japan's Mitsubishi Group, Italy's Impregilo, Spain's Grupo ACS, the China Railway group and Bechtel Group Inc., San Francisco. Sources say one team may have Chinese and U.S. members. South Korea's Hyundai Heavy Industries is also expected to participate because of its expertise in gate construction, which will make up 15% of the contract, says de la Guardia.

ACP plans to limit the proportion of imported labor, with current requirements to limit the numbers to 10% for craft labor and 15% for managers, says de la Guardia. Teams that must exceed those levels must first apply for a permit, he says.