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C.J. Schexnayder
First expansion dredging will begin near the Bridge of the Americas which spans the canal's Pacific entrance.

The massive $5.25–billion expansion of the Panama Canal took a large step forward on Sept. 11 when the officials with the the Panama Canal Authority released a request for proposal for the first major excavation – the dredging of the Pacific entrance to the waterway.

Dredging approximately 9.1 million cubic meters from the Pacific Ocean entrance to the canal will allow passage of the larger ships that will be using the waterway when the expansion project is completed in 2014.

Upon completion, the expansion will more than double the capacity of the historic waterway and a new set of locks will allow the passage of newer post–Panamax vessels.

The preliminary estimates by the Panama Canal Authority – the quasi–governmental organization that oversees the waterway's administration which is known by its Spanish–language acronym ACP – put the cost of the Pacific entrance dredging at about $180 million.

The scope of work includes widening the 8.9 mile–long navigation channels to at least 218 meters, deepening them to a maximum level of –15.5 meters at Mean Low Water Spring Tides (MLWST).

"The Pacific entrance dredging is integral to expansion and the construction of the new lane," said ACP Project Administration Division Manager John Langman. The Pacific side's geological characteristics make it more challenging than the Atlantic side. We will need a firm with the specialized equipment and experience to meet the demands of the project."

The Atlantic entrance dredging cost, by contrast, is only estimated at $70 million. ACP officials said that job will not be put to bid until 2009.

Pacific entrance dredging bids are due January 28. A site visit for prospective bidders will be held September 19 and a discussion meeting September 20.

The entire canal expansion will require the dredging of more than 50 million cubic meters of material. The ACP will be handling almost all of the dredging work inside the canal itself and has recently doubled the size of its fleet to handle the increased workload.

The ACP expects to open bidding on the removal of 14 million cubic meters from the Atlantic approach sometime in 2009.

Last week, the canal expansion officially kicked off with a ceremonial breaking ground to start the first of five dry excavations needed to create an access channel for the new Pacific locks and the canal's navigational channel. Progress on the massive project has been gaining steam of late.

Just days prior to the ceremony, the ACP released a request for pre qualification for the $3.35–billion effort to construct a new set of locks for the canal. Four finalists will be narrowed down by the end of the year in anticipation of the formal bidding on the lock construction.

In addition, late last month, Denver–based engineering and construction company CH2M Hill was named the project manager of the expansion effort.

For more information on the ACP's Pacific access dredging project go to: http://www.pancanal.com/eng/procsales/buy.html.