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Panama Canal expansion creates opportunity for American manufacturers [Commentary]

In 1956, the world's first container ship, the Ideal X, sailed from New York harbor to the Port of Houston. Instead of sacks and crates stuffed in a musty hull, the ship carried 58 neatly packed containers on its deck. Shipping costs fell drastically and global commerce changed forever. A world of opportunity — and competition — had arrived.

But American manufacturers were up to the challenge, thanks in part to the commitment of federal, state and local governments to build and maintain a world-class infrastructure that helped move their products and turn profits.

Global commerce is transforming again. Today's version of the Ideal X looks like a floating city, with containers stacked so high they tower above the waves like skyscrapers. New ships with double or even triple the capacity of their predecessors carry American-made cars, machine parts and food products through the Suez Canal and other parts of the world. But these ships are too big to fit through the Panama Canal — for now.

In two years, that barrier will disappear, opening up a world — quite literally — of opportunity for American manufacturers. Less than a mile from the original canal, the Panamanian government is building a new gateway between the Atlantic and the Pacific for these enormous ships.

This week, I traveled to Panama to check out the progress. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake joined me, along with Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Florida and the mayors of Atlanta and Philadelphia. These public officials know the new canal equals opportunities for their constituents. We watched with Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli as workers built giant concrete wall, and cranes and trucks excavated dirt from a massive pit. When this wider, deeper and longer passageway opens in late 2015, the amount of cargo that passes through the combined lanes of the Panama Canal will more than double.

Keep in mind: Over two thirds of the trips through the Panama Canal either begin or end in the United States. That means when the new locks open, we have the potential to expand exports at a considerably lower cost and higher volume.

A bigger canal will allow the world's largest ships to connect from the eastern half of the Western Hemisphere to the growing markets Asia. Many of our East Coast and Gulf of Mexico ports — and the rail lines, canals and highways that feed them — will see a major spike in traffic. The question is, do we have the will to build for this future and give American manufacturers the best opportunity to succeed?

The President and I have been traveling the East Coast, into the heart of Midwest manufacturing and down to the Gulf of Mexico, talking about the need to invest in infrastructure. That's why we included $48 billion in the Recovery Act — the largest public works project in the United States since the construction of the Interstate Highway System. This funding improved more than 6,000 miles of rail, more than 350,000 miles of road and more than 20,000 bridges. As we prepare for the Panama Canal expansion, these investments are paying dividends.

Recovery Act programs helped to build a National Gateway rail transfer system in Ohio and Pennsylvania and deepen the shipping channel in Baltimore. That investment generated an additional $1 billion from international transportation company CSX and the states to install a cutting edge freight system with state-of-the art cranes and loading facilities to improve the entire line. As a result, a dishwasher built in Findlay, Ohio can reach Baltimore twice as fast. Federal dollars combined with private and other public funding are benefiting ports from Baltimore to Miami to Corpus Christi.

For the President and me, all this translates into one thing: jobs. Since February 2010, this nation's manufacturers have created over 500,000 new jobs. Last year we exported more than ever before — over $2.2 trillion. We can build on this momentum. The President has proposed an additional $50 billion in infrastructure investments to create an additional 650,000 jobs. In the shorter term, the President and I urge the Congress to complete work on the Water Resources Development Act, which would authorize the further expansion of American ports.

Like the containers on board the Ideal X, the new locks at the Panama Canal signal a changing world. This nation has always welcomed change, and we have always put in the hard work needed to grow and thrive. I am confident that we will do so this time. It's time to invest in America.

Joe Biden is the vice president of the United States. He can be reached through

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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