Facelift planned for canal

PANAMA CITY, Panama – The largest modernization project in the 92-year-history of the Panama Canal was up for a nationwide referendum yesterday, with polls indicating overwhelming support for the $5.25 billion plan to expand the waterway for larger ships.

President Martin Torrijos’ government has billed the referendum as a historic facelift that will double the capacity of a canal already on pace to generate about $1.4 billion in revenue this year.

“If you’ve got a business, you’ve got to do what you can to improve it, make it more competitive,” Faustino Ortega, a 41-year-old mechanic who favors the expansion, said while standing in line to vote.

Critics claim the expansion will benefit the canal’s customers more than Panamanians, and worry that costs could balloon for this debt-ridden country.

The project would build a third set of locks on the Pacific and Atlantic ends of the canal by 2015, allowing it to handle modern container ships, cruise liners and tankers too large for its current 108-foot-wide locks.

The Panama Canal Authority, the autonomous government agency that runs the canal, says the project will be paid for by increasing tolls and will generate $6 billion in revenue by 2025.

Polls indicate the plan will be approved overwhelmingly. Green and white signs plastered across the country read “Yes for our children,” while tens of thousands of billboards and bumper stickers trumpet new jobs.

“It will mean more boats and that means more jobs,” said Damasco Polanco, 50, who was herding cows on horseback in Nuevo Provedencia.