By Mark Edward Nero
Bigger ships may be using the newly widened Panama Canal, but apparently, they’re not bypassing the Port of Oakland to get there. The wider canal locks have thus far not dented the port’s business in the 90 days since they opened, the port said Sept. 27.
According to port data, Oakland vessel traffic has actually increased since the expanded Canal debuted June 28. The trend counters earlier warnings that larger ships would detour around the US West Coast given Panama access.
Oakland said it received 310 vessel calls in July and August combined, compared to 276 vessels over the same two months in 2015, meaning the port’s vessel traffic has increased 12 percent year-over-year since the Canal expanded.
Oakland’s cargo volume has also increased, according to the data. The port said July and August were two of its three busiest months this year for container handling. It said there’s been no sign of cargo attrition due to the Panama Canal.
“Our customers need an Oakland gateway – not one thousands of miles away,” Port of Oakland Maritime Director John Driscoll said. “Our job now is to keep them here with good service.”
The port said it’s not insulated from Panama’s competitive threat, but declared that it has advantages making cargo migration to the canal unlikely, including local market concentration and export orientation.
Much of the nation’s import cargo is discharged at Southern California ports, then transported east by rail. The Panama Canal provides an alternative to those gateways: direct access to US East Coast ports.
But more than 80 percent of containerized imports discharged in Oakland remain in Northern California or Nevada. That cargo wouldn’t benefit from a Panama Canal option. Also, half of Oakland’s cargo is containerized exports, and the Oakland route is among the shortest to Asia on the US West Coast.