Panamanian firm Constructora Urbana SA (CUSA) won the first dry-excavation contract in July 2007 with a low bid of $41.1 million for the Pacific locks access channel, but was outbid for the two subsequent jobs. However, CUSA offered its services to the winning firms and netted subcontracting jobs with both. “We have the equipment out there already, and we can pretty much keep doing what we have been doing,” says CUSA Executive Vice President Carlos Fábrega. “We keep our equipment operating and our people at work.”

Ongoing Canal-Related Work Is a Blast
Photo: C.J. Schexnayder/ENR
Non-canal expansion construction thrives in Panama.

That is important in case the firm snags the final dry-excavation contract, expected to be let later this year. But the overall strategy, is for CUSA to position itself for the locks bid, Fábrega adds. CUSA is part of Grupo Unidos por el Canal, one of the three consortiums vying for that design-build contract.

The sheer scale of the locks project—estimated to cost $3.35 billion—has attracted a legion of foreign firms whose experience in Panama had been limited or nonexistent. Bidders hailed from 13 countries.

But one noticeable exception is Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht. After initially planning to vie for expansion work on the canal, the firm five years ago chose to target non-canal opportunities in the country.

There are plenty of them, thanks to a housing boom over the past several years and a recent presidential election that Ricardo Martinelli won partly based on his promise of upgraded roadways, water systems and efforts to meet growing electrical needs.

Odebrecht has wasted no time, winning a $60-million dam project in southwest Panama as well as a $215-million trans-isthmus highway job. The 42-km Colón-Panama City roadway was completed in May.

In Panama City, Odebrecht is nearing completion of a $189-million, 7-km downtown Cinta Costera bypass to ease massive congestion. It will create a direct connection between a north-south highway that currently dumps more than 70,000 vehicles a day into the city’s center. Odebrecht will then maintain and manage the road for five years.

“Instead of targeting one specific type of work, we have tried to diversify,” explains André Luiz Parana Ferreira, the firm’s director of planning, administration and finance in Panama.