Shipping lines have responded to containerized trade growth by increasing vessel size, which has resulted in fewer port calls to move the same number of containers. And larger vessel sizes also limit which ports can be called due to insufficient access channel depths and air drafts as well as cranes to serve the biggest ships.
“A useful proxy is the average size of containerships transiting the Panama Canal—which increased by 13.1 percent during the canal’s most recent fiscal year (ended Sept. 30, 2018),” states Cushman & Wakefield’s 2019 North American Port Outlook. “The Panama Canal Authority reports that its Neopanamax Locks can now handle ships of almost 15,000 TEUs. Large ship visits are now increasingly common at East Coast ports that have the requisite water depths in channels and at berths. How large will vessels get? Orders have been placed for ships as large as 23,000 TEUs.”
The industry trend toward larger vessels has caused ports to literally dig deeper, particularly on the East Coast. Port of Miami last year completed $1 billion in infrastructure improvements that increased the channel depth to 50-52 feet and also included the addition of a fast access tunnel with direct access to the interstate, the modernization of the on-dock freight rail system and the installation of new Super Post-Panamax cranes that have an outreach of 22 containers wide.