From CNN's Harris Whitbeck
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PANAMA CITY, Panama (CNN) -- With most of the votes counted, about 80 percent of Panamanians appeared Sunday to have approved a $5 billion plan to widen the Panama Canal.
The expansion would accommodate a new generation of cargo ships, many originating in China, seeking a quick route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
More than 90 percent of the votes have been counted. Despite some reports of irregularities, international observers from the Organization for American States said the referendum went well.
The 51-mile, man-made ditch that links the oceans was a marvel of engineering when it was completed in 1914.
Proponents of the planned expansion say it will guarantee the canal's viability for future generations.
Construction of the expansion would begin almost immediately; the whole project is expected to take at least four years, with completion expected in time for the 100th anniversary of the canal's opening in 2014.
In recent days, Panama Canal administrator Alberto Aleman attempted to persuade his countrymen to approve the referendum "to maximize our most important asset, which is our geographical position."
Proponents of the expansion argued that the cost of widening the canal will be offset by a hike in transit fees.
However, opponents expressed doubt that the fees will cover the cost and worry Panamanians will end up paying the price.
Sunday's referendum marked the first time that Panamanians have decided the canal's future on their own.
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty that led to the transfer of the canal's ownership from the United States to Panama in 1999.
Another Central American country, Nicaragua, is considering building an $18 billion canal that would compete with Panama's.
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