At this writing AAPA (American Association of Port Authorities) at their Centennial meeting in Seattle are wrestling with proposed spending cuts for port dredging and maintenance. It’s a policy that is undercutting efforts to increase US exports. With the Hearing of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, on “The Economic Importance and Financial Challenges of Recapitalizing the Nation’s Inland Waterways Transportation System,” scheduled for September 21st, the stage is being set for a clash between budget slashers and the US port community at large. And one of the biggest losers in this battle could be agricultural exporters using the Gulf ports.By Stas Margaronis, AJOTThere is a battle shaping up in Congress over funding for dredging and maintenance of US ports. Despite the oft-cited importance of international trade, and especially exports, in building a vibrant economy and for job growth, the very ports that handle 99% of that trade are being hamstrung by politics. Kurt Nagel, President & CEO of the AAPA, recently wrote, “today, federal navigation channels at the nation’s 59 busiest ports are available at their required depths and widths less than 35% [of the time]. This means channels narrowed by eroding sediments may be restricted to one lane of travel. A build-up of sediment on the channel bottom may mean that ships cannot carry full cargo loads.” According to the US Army Corp of Engineers only two major ports Los Angeles and Long Beach, both blessed with natural scouring bottoms, are fully dredged to their operational designs. For East Coast ports, and those in the Gulf, dredging isn’t an option but a necessity to remaining economically viable. The situation is reaching a crisis level prompting Rick Calhoun, chairman of Waterways Council, Inc to warn about the urgency for Congress to invest $7 billion to address the most important lock, dam and dredging improvements along the inland waterways. He said President Obama’s goal of doubling exports within five years couldn’t be attained “without a viable Mississippi River.” Down on the Farm: Agricultural Exports Rising During the recession, one of its few bright spots has been the increase in US agricultural exports. The combination of a lower US dollar and increase in demand, particularly in Asia, has boosted agricultural exports, with grains being among the main beneficiaries. The value of agricultural exports for Oct.-July period 2010 compared to the same period in 2011 has increased 29% to $117.54 million. Major bulk products (grains) are up 48% while high value items, (meats etc.) are up 17%. The trend has not been without a downside. Export containers full of agricultural products tend to “weigh out” rather than “cube out.” On the other hand, import containers with higher value retail cargos cube out. The net result is that even with more inbound containers than outbound, there can be shortages for export freight. The process is aggravated by the odd fact that the timely moving of an empty container back to Asia for higher value freight might be more profitable than assembling export containers of lower value goods. A big part of the problem is getting agricultural (or other goods) into position for export at a reasonable cost. In short, for the US to be an effective exporter, highways, rail and waterways must be efficiently deployed. The real rub is inland and coastal transportation. Highways are stretched to the limit and the infrastructure is crumbling. It’s a problem that has been ignored for three decades. Further trucks are not efficient movers of heavy freight, and the pollution factor is serious. Major railroads, which wield enormous power by virtue of diminished competition over the past three decades, have in many cases been unwilling to move goods from the US hinterland to port areas as profits are made in the transit of products such as coal, oil and chemicals. Gulf Ports To Benefit From Panama Canal Widening The Port of South Louisiana exemplifies the