Panama’s president announces huge canal expansion plan
PANAMA CITY, Panama – Panama’s president said a planned expansion of the Panama Canal would define the waterway’s “role in the 21st century” and on Monday called on voters to support a referendum to pay for the proposal.The expansion to make way for huge new container ships that can carry twice as much cargo is expected to cost $5.3 billion – in a country whose government budget is $6.5 billion a year. It will be put to voters in a referendum later this year.In a speech televised nationwide Monday evening, President Martin Torrijos said the expansion, approved by the board of directors of the Panama Canal, was “the most important decision about the canal and its role in the 21st century.”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 108 feet wide.The project calls for the construction of a third set of locks of water chambers that will allow the large “Post-Panamax” class of cargo ships to use the 50-mile waterway between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.The president – whose father, Omar Torrijos, negotiated the 1979 treaty that eventually gave Panama total control over the canal – appealed to Panamanians to support the expansion.The government’s determination to widen the canal is fueled by fears that newer, larger ships will seek other routes between the Atlantic and the Pacific.”The Panama Canal route is facing competition,” Torrijos said. “If we do not meet the challenge to continue to give a competitive service other routes will emerge that will replace ours. It would be unforgivable to refuse to improve the capacity of the waterway.”The Torrijos government also is counting on an economic windfall that would come from an estimated 7,000 jobs during the five-year construction.Recent polls indicate that a majority of Panamanians favor the expansion, which the president said would be financed through canal fees and some bank investments without risking government social programs.In 2005, Panama earned $1.2 billion in canal fees, maintenance and other related services levied on some 13,000 ship crossings.Panama took over the administration of the waterway on December 31, 1999, the day the U.S. military presence in Panama ended. The United States is the main user of the canal, followed by the combined South American countries and China.Opponents of the expansion, among them former canal administrator Fernando Manfredo, argue that the project is unnecessary and risky because it depends on variables like the growth of maritime world trade, world economic fluctuations and even politics.”Our most important natural resource is not the canal, but our geographic position,” Manfredo told The Associated Press, pointing out that the Pacific is becoming the “ocean of commerce.”Manfredo is the leader of a group that would prefer Panama build a mega-port near the Pacific end of the canal – at one-tenth of the cost, or about $600 million – where large ships could transfer their loads to smaller vessels to carry it to the Atlantic.The anti-expansion group says there are only about 300 Post-Panamax ships, and their trade routes are mostly in the Pacific, home to the world’s six largest ports.”The canal will remain the best alternative regardless of the size of the ships,” Manfredo said.