State plans to field-test new programs to identify new opportunities; dedicate $3 million for export counseling for companies; boost agricultural export efforts, and strengthen and expand relationships with international trading partners.

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Gov. Chris Gregoire laid out plans Tuesday to boost trade as part of President Obama’s effort to double American exports in five years.

“As one of the nation’s leading exporting states, Washington state has the ability to act as a testing ground as the U.S. Department of Commerce develops new programs to move the National Export Initiative forward,” she said.

Among the goals: field-test new programs to identify new opportunities; dedicate $3 million for export counseling for companies; boost agricultural-export efforts and strengthen and expand relationships with international trading partners.

It was symbolic that Gregoire made the announcement at the Port of Seattle, the region’s largest gateway. The Port supports directly and indirectly 200,000 jobs, $18 billion in business revenues and $900 million in state and local tax revenues.

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Last year was “an absolute disaster” because of the recession, Port of Seattle CEO Tay Yoshitani said Monday at a program sponsored by the International Council of Shopping Centers. Now traffic is up 44 percent and Seattle is the fastest-growing port on the U.S. West Coast.

Yoshitani is the first to say growth isn’t sustainable. It’s a recession-bounce-back and other ports will recover, too, including the megaports of Los Angeles-Long Beach, as long as the world economy avoids a double-dip recession that could shatter the recovery in Asia, Seattle’s primary export-import partner.

The more serious challenges to both Seattle and Tacoma come from Prince Rupert, B.C., and the widening of the Panama Canal. Together they could siphon off a good deal of traffic that now goes through U.S. West Coast ports. Some 70 percent of the traffic through the Port of Seattle goes inland.

Prince Rupert is a new container port, a day’s sailing closer to Asia. Thanks to less urban congestion and investments by Canada to improve rail infrastructure, this port, although still small, enjoys easy access to the U.S. Midwest.

Meanwhile, in 2014, a widened Panama Canal will accommodate some of the largest container ships, giving shipping companies an incentive to sail directly to U.S. ports on the Gulf of Mexico and East Coast.

Seattle, the closest U.S. port to Asia, has been working to differentiate itself as “the Green Gateway,” with a clean-trucks program, electrified cargo-handling equipment that reduces particulate matter and clean fuels at berths. Yoshitani said a smaller carbon footprint and the lower energy costs associated with a greener port are attractive to shippers.

One major issue is the uneven condition of infrastructure that links the Port, both highway and rail. Inland Washington farmers need better, faster access; Port officials have been reaching out to these key exporters, but state investments have lagged the needs.

Similarly, the railroads connecting Seattle to the rest of America have capacity limitations that have only been eased because of the recession.

Part of Gregoire’s program calls for getting federal money to improve at least some bottlenecks. Yet achieving major improvements will require public-private partnerships more difficult to fund at a time of government cutbacks.

Railroad shareholders may balk, especially because its unclear how traffic patterns will change after the recession.

All of which makes Washington’s export leadership an uneasy crown. If we don’t pay now to ensure continued competitiveness, we’ll definitely pay more later.

You may reach Jon Talton at jtalton@seattletimes.com