Panama (KIII news) — Operations are well underway that will lead to a deeper and wider ship channel at the Port of Corpus Christi, just in time for the opening of a newer, taller Harbor Bridge in the spring or summer of 2020.

In the meantime, Port executives are working behind the scenes to strengthen business relationships with shipping companies that are just beginning to take advantage of the newly-widened Panama Canal.

A group of Port officials and other dignitaries from the Coastal Bend traveled to Panama this week in hopes of bringing more business from Latin America.

It was back in June of 2016 when a Cosco container ship from China became the first vessel to pass through the newly expanded set of locks on the Pacific side of Panama and traverse the 50-mile system to exit on the Atlantic side. It was quite an event, attracting heads of state and dignitaries from around the world, including the delegation from the Port of Corpus Christi and the international press.

The $5.25 billion project is now making it possible for a whole new generation of super tankers to use the Panama Canal -- ships that couldn't get through it before.

"The Panamanians have reason to be proud, and those who work with them are proud with them," Port Commissioner Charlie Zahn said.

Even though the dredging and widening of the Corpus Christi ship channel is still about two years from completion, the Port of Corpus Christi is already taking advantage of the expanded Panama Canal. It's just not able to take full advantage -- yet.

"The new Panama Canal locks can handle vessels that are 1,200 feet long, that are 108 feet wide, and that can go 52 feet in depth, so we can handle some of those longer vessels," Port CEO Sean Strawbridge said. "We can't handle them deeper at this point because we're at 45 feet, and this is why we have to go to 54 feet. Where we're also challenged is the Harbor Bridge air draft restriction."

Clearly, the potential business opportunities, once the channel is complete and the new Harbor Bridge is in place, could be a real game-changer -- that is, assuming the right foundation is laid. That's what this week's international conference in Panama is all about -- solidifying relationships now to take full advantage of future business opportunities.

For the Port of Corpus Christi, currently, the nation's fourth largest in terms of tonnage, maintaining a strong partnership with those who run the vital shipping hub in Panama will also have a positive impact on the Coastal Bend economy.

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