C.J. Schexnayder
Panamaxed out. Larger locks will mean larger vessels will be able to use the canal in 2014.

On Friday, four consortia applied for qualification to build the $3.35-billion locks that will be the heart of the massive expansion to the Panama Canal. When completed, the new lock system will double the capacity of the historic waterway.

"The locks project is the most important contract under the Expansion Program, and we foresee strong competition for the project," said Jorge L. Quijano, Executive Vice President of Engineering and Program Management with the Panama Canal Authority. "The companies that have submitted qualifications are true pros with a wealth of experience, which means that the prospect of completing the Canal's expansion on time and with the expected quality, is very good."

The $5.25-billion expansion project will add a new lane of traffic through the waterway by the construction of new larger sets of locks on each end of the canal. When completed in 2014, the project will double the tonnage capacity and allow the transit of substantially larger vessels.

Thirty companies from more than a dozen countries make up the four consortia vying for the locks work - Consorcio C.A.N.A.L. led by ACS Servicios, Comunicaciones y Energía, S.L. of Spain; Consorcio Atlántico-Pacífico de Panamá led by Bouygues Travaux Publics of France; Bechtel, Taisei, Mitsubishi Corp., led by U.S.-based Bechtel Internacional, Inc. and Grupo Unidos por el Canal, led by Spanish company Sacyr Vallehermoso S.A.

Several US firms are pushing to be part of the locks project. San Francisco-based Bechtel International leads one consortium in conjunction with a pair of Japanese firms: Taisei Corp. and Mitsubishi Corp. Two other consortia include U.S. firms as design subcontractors: Los Angeles-based AECOM for Consorcio Atlántico-Pacífico de Panamá as well as Broomfield, Colo.-based Montgomery Watson Harza and Tetra Tech of Pasadena, Calif., for Grupo Unidos por el Canal.

The canal authority – known by its Spanish-language acronym, ACP – will now evaluate the four Statements of Qualification submitted by the groups. The finalists will then be permitted to submit proposals for the work itself.

Canal officials say they expect to release the request for proposals for the locks project in the next few weeks. The final selection of the design and contractor is tentatively set for December 2008.

The tiered system of bidding is a result of the ACP's decision to build both new locks as part of a single contract. While the technology for the planned locks isn't necessarily new, the scale of the project is.

The new single-lane, three-step locks at the Atlantic and Pacific entrances will boast lock chambers 427 meters long by 55 meters wide and 18.3 meters deep – with sufficient draft for the 366-meter-long post-Panamax ships. Instead of 'miter' gates uses by the existing locks, the new locks will use rolling gates similar to those at the Berendredt canal in Anbres Belgium.

The locks will also feature a series of water saving basins approximately 70 meters wide by 5.50 meters deep. A basin will be built for each individual lock, allowing the water to be re-used rather than flushed out to sea. Although the sheer size of the new lock chambers will require 65 percent more water than the existing locks, they will use 7 percent less water per transit.

The canal is currently operating at more than 90 percent capacity and demand for its use is growing. There were 14,194 total transits in fiscal year 2006, according to the ACP. Since August 15, 1914, more than 922,000 vessels have transited the waterway.

In addition, the ACP received eight bids for the second of five contracts to perform dry excavation near the Pacific entrance of the canal last week. The contract will include the removal of 7.5 million cubic meters in a stretch of approximately 2.4 kilometers.

The dry-excavation contract is the second of five that will be needed to create a 6.7 km link between the existing navigational channel at the entrance to the Gaillard Cut and the new set of locks that will be constructed on the Pacific side of the canal.

The lowest bid -- $31 million -- was presented by Constructora Urbana S.A. (Panama) who won the first of the five contracts earlier this year and has already begun work on the removal 7.3 million cubic meters of material that make up that portion of the work.

The maximum bid of $42.5 million was tendered by Consorcio Condor Proimpetrol of Colombia. One U.S. firm participated. International Underground Corp. of Atlantic Beach, Fla., presented a $62-million bid.

ACP officials say they will now review each of the bids and determine the winner of the contract in the next few weeks.