Users bemoan Panama Canal tolls
Ocean shipping companies complained at a public hearing in Panama City on June 1 about the Panama Canal Authority's proposal to hike tolls again next January.
In April, the canal authority announced its intention to change the way tolls are calculated and raise tolls 13 percent for containerships beginning on Jan. 1. Equivalent toll increases were offered for bulk shipping. Canal officials held off toll increases in 2010 at the insistence of users.
The increase comes on top of a 71 percent increase in container vessel tolls during the last five years. In 2009, toll rates increased from $63 to $72 per TEU for laden containers and from $50.40 to $57.60 for empty boxes.
Container lines, and other sectors of the maritime industry, lost billions of dollars during 2009 because as trade plummeted during the recession they absorbed huge costs for a glut of unutilized assets. Large ships that transit the canal must pay tolls that total hundreds of thousands of dollars per trip.
The canal authority needs to raise more revenue to help pay for the $5.25 billion construction of a new set of locks and dredging of ocean entranceways to handle the next generation of mega-size vessels.
Canal officials note that carriers and their customers have benefited from investments that have helped shave transit times through canal waters and that increased usage of larger vessels will create even more efficiency for the maritime industry.
Ships headed to and from the United States are the largest beneficiaries of the maritime shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In recent years, more and more cargo owners have elected to move products through the canal from Asia rather than unload them at West coast ports for cross-country truck or intermodal transport. The reliance of East Coast ports on the canal is expected to increase — although experts debate to what extent — once expansion is completed in late 2014.
Transcontinental intermodal costs significantly increased during the past three years, but the increase in tolls could lead some shippers to reevaluate the price differential between intermodal rail and all-water transport, and which mode provides a better value.
The maritime industry paid $1.4 billion in tolls to transit the Panama Canal in 2009. The container vessel segment paid the lion's share of the tolls, or $793 million, up from $646 million in 2007.
The canal authority also accepted formal written comments on the toll proposal through May 27. ' Eric Kulisch