Panama's president pitches huge expansion of canal in referendum

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.

President Martin Torrijos whose father, Omar Torrijos, negotiated the 1979 treaty that eventually gave Panama total control over the canal prepared a nationally televised appeal Monday evening for voters to support a referendum on the US$6 billion (Ђ4.85 billion) expansion.

So-called Panamax ships carrying 4,000 containers can now just barely fit through the 33-meter (36-yard) locks. The expansion would add a third, wider set of locks, or water chambers, measuring a gaping 54-meters (59-yards) wide, to accommodate larger "Post-Panamax" class of ships that can carry twice as many containers.

The government's determination to widen the Panama Canal is fueled by fears that the new, larger cargo ships will seek other routes between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, diminishing the income-generating capacity of the route across the Panamanian isthmus.

The Torrijos government also is counting on an economic windfall that would come from an estimated 7,000 jobs during the five-year construction period.

Recent polls indicate that a majority of Panamanians favor the expansion.

The price tag of the project is nearly the size of Panama's US$6.5 billion (Ђ5.26 billion) annual budget, but the government is counting on private bank financing.

In 2005 there were 13,000 ship crossings that paid Panama US$1.2 billion (Ђ970 million) in canal fees, maintenance and other related services.

The canal, 32 meters (35 yards) above sea level at its highest point, uses a series of parallel locks to lift ships to Lake Gatun for the 50-mile (80-kilometer) cruise from one ocean to the other.

The additional locks would require a system that retains part of the water now dumped into the oceans as the ships are lowered or lifted, reports AP.

O.Ch.