updated 4/24/2006 5:44:13 PM ET 2006-04-24T21:44:13

Panama’s president is appealing to his citizens to support the biggest expansion of the Panama Canal since it opened in 1914, making way for huge new container ships that can carry twice as much cargo.

The project, which will be put to voters in a referendum later this year and is expected to cost $6 billion, would add a third series of locks big enough to accommodate the world’s biggest cargo ships.

The biggest ships that can pass through the canal’s current locks are known as “Panamax” vessels and can carry 4,000 cargo containers. They barely fit in the locks, which are about 109 feet wide.

The new locks would be just under 180 feet wide, to allow passage of “post-Panamax” ships, which carry 8,000 containers.

The government argues that the wider locks are key to protecting the role of the Panama Canal and its crucial income-generating capacity — an argument President Martin Torrijos is expected to make Monday evening in a nationally televised appeal for voters to support the expansion.

The United States returned administration of the canal to Panama in 1999, under a treaty that was negotiated two decades earlier by Torrijos’ father, President Omar Torrijos.

13,000 ships a year
Some 13,000 ships passed through the waterway in 2005, paying about $1.2 billion for canal fees and maintenance and other related services.

Still, the project’s estimated $6 billion cost would be a big investment for a country whose government budget is $6.5 billion a year. Officials are counting on private bank financing.

And the government also is touting the creation of 7,000 new jobs during construction, which it says would take at least five years.

Recent polls indicate 56 percent of Panamanians favor the expansion, 19 percent oppose it and the rest are undecided, but there will be heated arguments before the referendum.

Opponents cite risks
Opponents say the expansion is unnecessary and risky because it depends on variables like the growth of maritime world trade and the world economy. They say there are only about 300 of the mammoth ships in operation and their trade routes are mostly within the Pacific.

“Our most important natural resource is not the canal, but our geographic position,” former canal administrator Fernando Manfredo told The Associated Press in an interview before Torrijos’ appearance.

Manfredo heads a group that is arguing for a $600 million megaport to be built at the Pacific end of the canal. It would allow the bigger ships to transfer their loads to smaller vessels for carrying through the canal and on to ports in the Atlantic. “The canal will remain the best alternative regardless of the size of the ships,” he said.

The United States is the main user of the canal, followed by the South American countries as a group and then China.

The 50-mile canal uses a series of parallel locks to lift ships to the 170-square-mile Lake Gatun and then lower them as they cross between the Atlantic and Pacific.

Torrijos’ project would include a system to save part of the lake water that now flows into the oceans as ships move through the locks constructed by U.S. engineers a century ago.

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