CARTAGENA, Colombia (Reuters) - Panama will know in a few months whether the long-awaited expansion of its famous shipping canal will meet the 2014 deadline for completion or face further delays, the canal administrator's chief executive said.
The $5.3 billion canal overhaul - already about six months behind schedule - will allow newer, bulkier container ships to pass through the canal's locks and gates, speeding greater loads of cargo between Europe and Asia.
"In the next few months we will be able to say with more certainty when the work will be completed," Alberto Aleman, who heads the Panama Canal Authority, told Reuters late Friday on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia.
"We will know whether we will complete at the stipulated time or not."
The Panama Canal Authority, financially independent from the government, has set a completion date of October, 2014. Delays in laying concrete may create the hold-up, he said.
The size and bulk of cargo vessels has increased over the years, leaving the canal's locks, which raise and lower the water level to allow ships to pass through and go from ocean to ocean, inadequate for many of today's freighters.
Delays in finishing the job come with penalties of up to $54 million, said Aleman, while early completion would be rewarded with $50 million. Any hold-up would be only a matter of months, he said.
Construction is being handled by a consortium led by Spain's Sacyr and Italy's Impregilo as well as the Belgian company Jan de Nul and Panama's Constructora Urbana.
Expansion of the 50-mile (80-km) canal will help boost economic growth in Panama, as the government will bring in more revenue from heavier traffic of commodities and other bulky goods.
Originally built nearly a century ago, the canal claimed the lives of tens of thousands of poor workers, most of whom died of malaria and other tropical diseases, as they hacked through dense jungle linking the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific.
The canal, which took a decade to complete, was under U.S. control until Panama took it over in 1999.
Traffic through the canal - a 13-hour stretch - has recovered since the 2008 global financial crisis that curtailed cargo shipping as the world economy slumped. Cargo volume reached a record 322 million tonnes in 2011, Aleman said.
This year Aleman expects volume of around 330 million tonnes.
"We see a slow recovery," said Aleman, who also headed the U.S. government's administrator before the handover to Panama.
"The U.S. isn't growing fast, the problem with Europe is very serious but China is growing well and so is Latin America; so one market replaces the other."
Editing By Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Philip Barbara