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C.J. Schexnayder
Gatun locks mark Atlantic side of Panama Canal.

The Panama Canal Authority took a first step in the $3.35–billion effort to construct a new set of locks, with the Aug. 28 release of a request for pre–qualifications.

The locks, which will be located on each end of the canal and add a new lane of traffic, are the largest and most complicated aspect of the $5.25–billion expansion of the historic waterway. It is expected to be completed in 2014.

Often known by its Spanish–language acronym, ACP, the quasi–governmental organization intends to build both new locks as part of a single contract. Due to the size of the project, a pre–qualification bid became necessary, say ACP officials.

The release is the initial step in the two–phase process to select the firm that will ultimately design and build the new locks. A site visit for prospective bidders will be held on Sept. 12 and a short–list selection is expected to be made at the end of November. The second phase will be the release of a Request for Proposals for the new locks, currently scheduled for February. The final selection of the design and contractor will be made in December, 2008.

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C.J. Schexnayder
Miraflores locks sit on Pacific side of canal.

"There are many talented and creative firms out there that have the technical and financial strength to carry out this work successfully," says Jorge l. Quijano, ACP executive vice president of engineering and program management. "We look forward to selecting, towards the end of next year, the consortium that submits the best proposal."

When completed in 2014 – the canal's 100th anniversary – the project will double the tonnage capacity and the larger locks will allow the transit of substantially larger vessels.

An Environmental Impact Study completed by URS Holdings for the project has been submitted to Panama's National Environmental Administration. ACP says it expects approval for the plan by the end of the year.

"Over the last several months we have seen a number of international consortia being formed to participate in the contracting process," Quijano said. As many as 10 teams have already expressed interest in the locks project.

These include a joint venture of German contractors Bilfinger + Berger and Hochtief, with France's Vinci as well as a group of 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.

South Korea's Hyundai Heavy Industries also is expected to participate because of its expertise in gate construction, which will make up 15% of the contract, according to de la Guardia.

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

The locks will also feature a series of water–saving basins, approximately 70 m wide x 5.50 m deep, 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% more water than the existing locks, they will use 7% less water per transit.

The basins are similar to smaller ones featured on the Hohenwarthe Locks on the Elbe River in Germany.

Feasibility Studies

While the technology for the planned locks isn't new, the scale of the project is unprecedented. To ensure the feasibility of the planned lock systems, the ACP has invested significant effort in feasibilities studies.

ACP has contracted Compangie Nationale du Rhone in Lyon, France, to build a 1:30 scale physical model to advance the hydraulic design concept. In addition a tank test model of 1:80 scale has been constructed with Flanders Hydraulic Laboratories in Belgium to test the behavior of vessels through the proposed locks.

The final reports on these studies are expected by April 2008. The contractor will be required to validate its own lock filling and emptying designs in its own laboratories.

The expansion project has been in planning stages for more than a decade but was finally green–lighted last year when Panamanians approved the plan in a referendum. In the past month, progress on the expansion project has accelerated dramatically. Earlier this month, Denver–based CH2M Hill was tapped as the project manager.

In late July, Panamanian construction firm CUSA won the first contract for work on the expansion – a $41.1 million contract for the removal of 7.3–million cu m of material near the Pacific entrance. Site work on that job is slated to begin this month, ACP officials said.

Information concerning the Request for Qualification can be found on the ACP website at: http://www.pancanal.com/eng/procsales/buy.html