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By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
    Ports and rail hubs around America are gearing up for the completion of expansion of the Panama Canal, and the Southwestern Illinois area is among them.
    Intermodal facilities each hope to take advantage of the likely surge of freight movement.
    “I don’t have a crystal ball and there are a lot of different opinions as to where that growth will take place. But I’m going to say there are regions in the Midwest that are going to benefit from the Panama Canal,” said Mary Lamie, executive director of the St. Louis Regional Freightway.
    The Panama Canal expansion should be completed by May although the date has been pushed back several times. The project is intended to double the capacity of the canal by creating a new lane of traffic and allowing more and larger ships — about 1.5 times the current maximum width and length — that can carry over twice as much cargo.
    The project will feature two new sets of locks, one each on the Atlantic and Pacific sides, and newly excavated channels to the new locks. It is the largest volume of work done on the canal since it originally opened in 1914.
    Lamie is certain the Midwest can play a role.
    “We’ve got the capacity on the Mississippi River. And we’ve got facilities like America’s Central Port with the (new South) harbor in place and the right equipment to pick up the containers off the barges and move them from freight rail to a truck,” Lamie said.
    The St. Louis Regional Freightway represents the interests of all three ports in the region, the other two being the Port of Metropolitan St. Louis and its Municipal River Terminal, operated by the city of St. Louis, and the Jefferson County (Mo.) Port Authority.

    “When you connect all those dots and start showing all those resources in our region, it’s a very compelling story,” Lamie said.
    The key for the St. Louis region is to work collaboratively and be part of the discussions, she said.
    “When leaders are making those decisions in the Port of New Orleans and the Port of Houston, when those ocean carriers are working with third-party logistics companies, trying to figure out what those transportation corridors are going to look like, we want to be part of those discussions,” she said.
    Freight rail and ports throughout the national are making hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure improvements to get ready for whatever happens. America’s Central Port recently debuted its new South Harbor, which got one of its first key tests last month when it loaded its first river barge in a test of the conveyors and equipment at the terminal building that receives trucks and rail cars.
    Dennis Wilmsmeyer, the executive director of America’s Central Port, is the chair of the marketing committee for the Freightway, Lamie said.
    “We’re trying to be very strategic, but more importantly we’re not in it alone. We’re working with leaders on both sides of the river, all the economic development professionals, with economic development organizations and all of our elected leaders,” she said.