In addition to the $3.2-billion project to construct locks for a third lane of the Panama Canal, Panama City construction includes a new metro system, high-end condos and restaurants in its historic district and a new museum on biodiversity designed by Frank Gehry. The fast-paced Latin city with a beat, and a heavy portfolio of construction underway, maintained a rapid tempo as it played host to the American Society of Civil Engineers' global engineering conference earlier this month.

In an opening keynote to more than 1,000 ASCE attendees from 21 countries, Panama Canal Authority Administrator Jorge L. Quijano corrected the common misconception that the canal as it exists today was built between 1904 and 1914. Quite the contrary, Quijano said, the canal has been under construction almost continually over its 100-year history—widening channels, dredging lakes, lining banks, installing the lighting system that allows night transits and converting mechanical drives to hydraulic  ones.

The current project is certainly the largest—adding a third lane for traffic with a new system of locks and gates. Quijano explained that the canal's growth has come partly from numbers of transits but more from the capacity and size of the vessels. As more ships exceeded the maximum 106-ft beam of a Panamax vessel, planning began decades ago for a third lane. Now scheduled to open in early 2016, the canal's third lane will be able to transport "all but 1.5%" of the world's ships," Quijano said.

ASCE announced two transitions of leadership. Robert Stevens, an executive vice president for Arcadis, installed as the society's president, noted "interest in ASCE all over the world." Stevens plans a particular outreach to India this year, where 5,000 of ASCE's 145,000 members are located. There is a growing interest, he added, in creating infrastructure report cards in other countries. "It's already been picked up in Australia and New Zealand, and Nigeria and Ghana are very interested," he said.


After considering 100 candidates, ASCE's search committee recommended elevating its deputy executive director and general counsel Thomas Smith III to executive director when Patrick J. Natale retires at the end of the year. Smith said he will emphasize helping the large and diverse group "to unify and speak with one voice, and one way to do that is through standards that elevate the practice and elevate health, safety and welfare."

At the Panama event, ASCE met jointly with Engineers Without Borders for the first time. EWB held its first global classroom, said President Greg Sauter, called "Design Global, Engineer Local." The 75 students from seven countries worked with professors for 45 hours of classroom instruction in Panama and chose tracks such as water systems or bridge design. Instruction included attending ASCE conference sessions. Catherine Leslie, EWB executive director, said the students do an additional 80 to 90 hours of pre-work and post-work and receive credit. Over 30 professionals joined in for continuing education units.

EWB students also visited current and potential future field sites such as Panama City's Casco Antigua historic district, where one group met with Fernando Diaz, a civil engineer with the Panama City section of the Office of Historical Heritage. Diaz described the "processes we have been going through to restore and defend our historical heritage and our identity as Panamanians."

Casco Antigua, still partly a slum occupied by 3,000 of Panama's poorest residents, was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. With its mix of French, Spanish and Early American architecture dating back to the 1700s, it is increasingly attracting investors in condos, boutiques and restaurants. Diaz described the series of criteria his office uses to guide development according to the age and construction type of the buildings. "The more ancient the buildings, the more rigorous the preservation requirements," he explained.


While working to preserve the old, Panama City also is planning for its transportation future. The first 14-kilometer line of Panama City's metro system opened in July, and ridership has exceeded expectations. In an interview with ENR, Roberto R. Roy, minister for canal affairs and minister in charge of the metro, said they are currently adding 2 km to the first line and have let bids on a second 21-km line—all elevated. Program manager for line two is a consortium of two Spanish firms—Ayesa Ingenieria y Arquitectura and Barcelona Metro—along with Louis Berger, Morristown, N.J.

Beyond the second line, Roy said, "we're talking to the Japanese government" about financing for line three. He said the city is looking at alternatives, but one option under study includes a fourth bridge over the Panama Canal that can carry trains, connect to many highways and have a low enough profile to stay out of the flight path to the airport.

Currently, the most striking new feature of the city is Gehry's colorful 44,000-sq-ft biodiversity museum, which opened on Oct. 2. Challenging architectural concrete and steel-roof geometries led to 10 years of construction.