More ships carrying more tonnage moved through the Panama Canal in the second quarter, with the Pacific-Atlantic waterway operating near capacity and authorities studying expansion.

Panama’s Canal Authority (PCA) said that transit numbers increased 0.2% in the April-June period as 3,732 vessels passed through the canal, up just 7 ships from the same period a year earlier.

“Clearly, the Panama Canal is nearing capacity. That is why the PCA is studying expansion,” a canal spokesman said. He added that canal capacity is a moving target, due to constant improvements.

Additional capacity-boosting measures that will speed ships through the man-made canal will be announced in coming weeks, the spokesman said.

The time it took to cross the interoceanic waterway, which gives world shippers a cost-cutting shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific, was trimmed by more than four hours in the second quarter from a year earlier.

Shippers, on average, took 23.6 hours to pass through the canal, down from 27.9 hours in the second quarter of 2004, which canal authorities said was the result of more efficient lock maintenance.

Quarterly tonnage increased by 5.4% to 71.9 million metric tons from 68.2 million metric tons.

The PCA is soon expected to reveal plans for an expansion of the canal, which carries five percent of world trade and is the driving force behind Panama’s $13 billion economy.

A strong advocate of expansion is President Martin Torrijos, son of Gen. Omar Torrijos, who negotiated the handover of the canal in 1977 treaties with the United States.

Recently the PCA reelected current chief Alberto Aleman Zubieta as administrator of the authority for seven more years. (Reuters)