Along with others from farm country, I recently returned from a visit to Panama, where we were treated to a tour of the Panama Canal and got to see very closely the third canal and series of locks being constructed to expand capacity.  

The existing canal is breathtaking with its scale and scope and what it accomplishes, particularly when one thinks of the timeframe of its construction and the technology available at that time.  

The new construction and the pace and scale and scope are even more amazing and truly beyond words. What Panama is doing will clearly position them for the 21stCentury and cement their position of being a world trade hub — to the benefit of their populace and economy.

The project will create a new set of locks and a canal alongside the existing canal. The new channel is designed to handle “Post Panamax” ships and will essentially triple the cargo capacity of the canal.

It includes construction of two lock complexes — one on the Atlantic side and another on the Pacific side — each with three chambers, which include three water-saving basins; excavation of new access channels to the new locks and the widening and deepening of existing navigational channels. It is a project of tremendous scale and undertaking. 

But, what is most impressive is that construction started in 2007 and is on track for completion in 2014. Projected total cost for this massive project is between $5 billion and $6 billion, and by all reports the project is on time and on budget.

Contrast that to our own internal lock-and-dam system that continues to deteriorate with little prospect for definitive action by Congress or the Corp of Engineers. As one example of the failure of our system, consider a new report just out on the Olmstead Lock and Dam on the Ohio River.

• Congress authorized the Olmstead project in 1993. The Engineers report estimated a total cost of $775 million and a seven-year construction duration. Ground was broken in 1996.

• By 2003, the Olmstead project’s cost had risen to $1.06 billion and its “optimum” completion date, based on efficient funding, was projected to be in 2010. The seven-year timetable has doubled to 14.

• The Corp of Engineers has recently recast the cost and completion date. Cost is now estimated at $2.9 billion, with a completion date of 2021, or 25 years.

• At this point in time, it is projected that no significant new construction projects anywhere on the U.S. Inland Waterway System will be able to move forward for at least 10 years because of the cost overruns at Olmstead that consume virtually all of the revenues in the Inland Waterway Trust Fund.