Barge backlog on Mississippi shows need for investment -Kirk

WASHINGTON Tue Dec 11, 2012 1:19pm EST

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WASHINGTON Dec 11 (Reuters) - Citing the delay in billions of dollars worth of U.S. exports due to low water levels on the Mississippi River, President Barack Obama's top trade negotiator warned on Tuesday that infrastructure investment was vital to spurring the economy.

"We have $9 billion of exports sitting on barges because they cannot get down the Mississippi River because of the drought," said U.S. Trade Representative Ronald Kirk. "The need for us to look holistically at all of the infrastructure around trade is critical," he said.

The government said last week that a combination of dredging and fresh rain would keep barge traffic moving on the middle Mississippi through the middle of this month despite the river's low water levels, but others have been more skeptical.

More than 100 million tons of cargo, half of it corn and soybeans, are shipped annually through the stretch of the river south of St Louis. Shippers and farm groups fear shallow water will cut off traffic later this month.

Barge companies have told customers not to load barges as heavily as usual so they will not ride as deep in the water.

Kirk did not go into details about where the blockage was occurring and specifically what kind of trade had been worst impacted. But he said the level of delayed exports would rise to $10 billion by January unless "something dramatic" happened.

"One of the way to get our economy growing is to focus on necessary infrastructure," Kirk told a roundtable meeting of businesses and export specialists, stressing the importance of expanding port capacity.

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