PARKERSBURG - West Virginia manufacturers could increase their worldwide exports because of the widening of the Panama Canal and other infrastructure projects on the East Coast, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said.
The expansion will allow larger cargo ships at twice the existing size to pass through the canal, said Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Rockefeller held a hearing on Wednesday on the expansion of the Panama Canal and its impact on freight and infrastructure in America.
The expansion, scheduled to be completed by 2015, could cause an increase in export traffic at ports on the Gulf Coast and East Coast, he said.
"The products imported on the biggest ships find their way to West Virginia and businesses here exported more than $11 billion of goods abroad last year," said Rockefeller.
The expansion would remove a bottle neck because of the size limitation on cargo ships, said Cam Huffman, president of the Wood County Development Authority. Several local companies export goods worldwide, including Kreinik Manfacturing in Parkersburg; however, expansion can also aid companies that import parts here, such as the Hino Motors truck manufacturer in Williamstown, he said.
"It works both ways," he said.
Construction of the Panama Canal started more than 130 years ago, first by France, which quit partly because of the high mortality rate from disease. The United States took over, tackled the engineering and completed the 48-mile canal in 1914 after a decade of construction.
A long-term infrastructure plan is needed to prepare for the impact on freight movement on the East Coast after the canal is expanded, Rockefeller said.
The Pritchard Intermodal Facility Project in Wayne County is financed by federal and state investments, Rockefeller said. The facility is part of the Norfolk Southern's Heartland Corridor connecting railroads from Chicago with ports in Norfolk, Va., and providing safer crossings and expanded rail capacity in West Virginia and is an example of leveraging private and public investments for transportation infrastructure, he said.
Rockefeller cited the American Infrastructure Investment Fund Act of 2013 he introduced to encourage private, state and regional investments in transportation projects like the Pritchard facility.
"The expansion of the Panama Canal-and the possible growth of our shipping capacity in West Virginia and across the eastern seaboard-shows what can happen when the public and private sector works together in rebuilding and expanding our rail systems, ports, highways and airports," Rockefeller said.