A barge carries a new rolling gate for the Panama Canal expansion project, toward the Pedro Miguel Locks on the Pacific side of the project near Panama City, Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014. The Panama Canal expansion project will have 16 new rolling gates, allowing the passage of larger post panamax ships. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

When the Panama Canal expansion is completed in 2016, the Port of New Orleans and businesses in south Louisiana and across the U.S. will see an uptick in the cargo they send and receive, carried in and out by bigger cargo ships able to float through the widened Latin American waterway, a port official said Wednesday.

Gary LaGrange, president and chief executive of the Port of New Orleans, joined other import-export experts who addressed a lunch crowd invited by Le Centre International de Lafayette. The seminar highlighted business conducted between the U.S. and its Latin American free-trade partners.

Countries that make up the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement — Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic — have increased trade with the U.S. since the pact was signed in 2005, a free trade agreement that was supposed to include Panama but did not.

Panama, however, was included in much of the conversation Wednesday about countries included in CAFTA-DR.

Delilah DeSouza, an international trade specialist who focuses on exports, said the CAFTA-DR countries need American goods.

For instance, El Salvador needs U.S.-made tires, automobile parts, dredging services, air-conditioning equipment and installation know-how, said DeSouza, who works for the U.S. Commercial Service.

Nicaragua needs education and worker training know-how along with food processing and other restaurant equipment.

“As their income increases, so do their purchasing desires,” DeSouza said.

DeSouza said the U.S. Commercial Service in New Orleans helps U.S. businesses find customers and partners in other countries, and has developed marketing research that can be found at export.gov.mrkt research.

LaGrange said CAFTA-DR goods offloaded and loaded at the Port of New Orleans have for the most part increased since the agreement was initiated in 2005.

That year, U.S. goods leaving New Orleans for Guatemala amounted to about 30,000 tons. In 2013, more than 130,000 tons were shipped, LaGrange said.

He said U.S. exports to CAFTA-DR countries for the most part outpaced imports. Exceptions include Nicaragua, which sent more than 20,000 tons of goods to New Orleans in 2013 compared with the 13,000 tons it received.

To keep up with the expected increased trade at the New Orleans port, and to maintain or grow the port’s market share, will take money. Lots of it, LaGrange said.

He and others are working with state and federal transportation agencies to find $600 million now to build a one-mile “flyover,” a tall overpass crossing other thoroughfares and train tracks in densely packed New Orleans, to get cross-country 18-wheelers from the port to Interstate 10.

Down the road, he said, the port will need another $550 million in port enhancements to keep up with demand.