The $5.25-billion expansion of the Panama Canal entered its latest phase in June, as the recently completed Atlantic and Pacific locks of the new third lane were flooded for the first time. The installation of the gates on the locks, which will allow the Canal to pass ships carrying 13,000 to 14,000 TEUs (20-ft-equivalent units), has been considered the most complex and difficult portion of the expansion project. With the new gates in place, operational testing can begin.

"We started flooding the Atlantic locks on June 11, then we flooded the Pacific locks on June 22," says Ilya Espino de Marotta, executive vice president for the Panama Canal Authority's canal-expansion program. "It's a great step, because this lets you test the gates' movements. The gates are supposed to move in five minutes. We've tested four of the gates, two on each side, and they all are under five minutes."

The massive gates of the new third lane of the Panama Canal are designed to roll into recesses perpendicular to the canal, unlike the swinging-miter gates on the existing canal lanes. "First we send divers down to check the rail beneath the gate," says Marotta. "The upper wagon, which moves the gates, was only tested without the gates. So this is the first time we are using the upper and lower wagon with the gate in a movement," she says. We have to make sure the gate is aligned to go into recess properly."

The operational testing process will take three months, says Marotta. "We will first flood the lower chambers. After the first two gates are working and the contractor feels ready to proceed, we'll do two more locks." Testing includes not only the mechanical cycling of the locks and valves, but also the first live deployment of the complex software system designed to operate them.

Much other work remains, including the completion of the water-filling basins adjacent to the channel, which will allow the new lane of the Panama Canal to use less water than the existing lanes, despite its higher capacity. But in a project that has had its share of uncertainty, getting the locks flooded for the first time brought a sigh of relief to the contracting team. "The flooding of the locks is five years of work focused into a single moment," says Giuseppe Quarta, head of the consortium Grupo Unidos por el Canal, lead contractor on the project. "We have finished excavating the approach and channels. … I think that we can say, in the big scheme of things, that the basic construction is finished. The focus now goes on to the electromechanical side rather than the civil side."

Quarta told ENR that earlier problems on the project have been largely resolved, and the team is on schedule. "Back in March [2014] we signed an agreement that set up 28 milestones. Four milestones are still in future and we have complied with the other 24 despite the problems of last year," he says. "With the agreement of last year, it took a long time for funds to materialize, and we have done very well despite this. Let's not forget that little more than one year ago the project was stopped, and today we have two locks flooded."

According to Marotta, the overall project is now at 90% completion, with the locks themselves at about 88.1% complete. "This has been the most successful time for me on the project because everything has to come together at the same time. It's really exciting," she says.

The third lane of the Panama Canal is expected to be functionally complete in the first quarter of 2016.