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The Panama Canal expansion project, also called the Third Set of Locks Project, is intended to double the capacity of the Panama Canal by 2016 by creating a new lane of traffic, thereby allowing more ships, and by increasing the maximum width and height, thereby allowing larger ships thanks to the Panama Canal expansion. The new larger size of ships, called New Panamax, is about be about one and a half times the current Panamax size and can carry over twice as much cargo.

Then-Panamanian President Martín Torrijos formally proposed the project on 24 April 2006, saying it would transform Panamainto a First World country. A national referendum approved the proposal by a 76.8 percent majority on 22 October, and the Cabinet and National Assembly followed suit. The project formally began in 2007.

The project is planned to:

1. Build two new sets of locks, one each on the Atlantic and Pacific sides, and excavate new channels to the new locks. Each set of locks will have three chambers with water-saving basins.
2. Widen and deepen existing channels.
3. Raise the maximum operating level of Gatun Lake

The original canal has two lanes, each with its own set of locks. The Panama Canal expansion project added a third lane through the construction of lock complexes at each end of the canal. One lock complex is located on the Pacific side, southwest of the existing Miraflores Locks. The other is located east of the existing Gatun Locks. Each of these new lock complexes have three consecutive chambers designed to move vessels from sea level to the level of Gatun Lake and back down again.

Each chamber has three lateral water-saving basins, for a total of nine basins per lock and 18 basins in total. Just like the original locks, the new locks and their basins will be filled and emptied by gravity, without the use of pumps. The location of the new locks uses a significant portion of the area excavated by the United States in 1939 and suspended in 1942 because of World War II. The new locks are connected to the existing channel system through new navigational channels. The new lock chambers are 427 m (1,400.92 ft) long, 55 m (180.45 ft) wide, and 18.3 m (60.04 ft) deep.

The original Panama Canal has a limited capacity determined by operational times and cycles of the existing locksand further constrained by the current trend towards larger (close to Panamax-sized) vessels transiting the canal, requiring more transit time in the locks and channels. Also, periodic maintenance on the aging canal requires shutdowns of this waterway. Demand is growing due to the growth of international trade, and many users require a guaranteed level of service. Despite the gains which have been made in efficiency, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) estimated that the canal would reach its maximum sustainable capacity between 2009 and 2012.

The proposed Panama Canal expansion by the construction of a third set of locks will allow it to capture the entire demand projected through 2025 and beyond. Together, the existing and new locks will approximately double the capacity of the present canal.

In 2006, ACP estimated the cost of the third set of locks for the Panama Canal expansion project at US$5.25 billion. This figure includes design, administrative, construction, testing, environmental mitigation, and commissioning costs, as well as contingencies to cover risks and unforeseen events, such as accidents, design changes, price increases, and possible delays. The cost of interest paid on loans during construction is not included. The largest cost is that associated with constructing the two new lock complexes—one each on the Atlantic and Pacific sides—with estimated costs of US$1.11 billion and US$1.03 billion each, plus a US$590 million provision for possible contingencies during their construction.