By Kyung M. Song

The Port of Seattle has won a $20 million grant to rehab and expand one of its busiest container terminals downtown, one of two projects from Washington that successfully competed for a piece of $600 million in federal grants set aside for critical transportation needs around the nation.

The award from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) will pay for repairs and paving at Terminal 46, one of the Port's four major container-handling terminals. It handles about 20 percent of the Port's container terminal volume, mostly from Asia.

More important, the money will help boost cargo-handling capacity by extending the crane rail at the dock to fit in more of the largest cranes. That would allow the Port to load and unload two mammoth "super post-Panamax" ships simultaneously.

The grant, made under the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program, was announced Tuesday by Sen. Patty Murray. The Washington Democrat helped create the TIGER fund, which since 2009 has doled out $4.1 billion in discretionary grants for road, transit, rail and port projects.

Murray also said $1.1 million will go to the Makah Tribe for dock work to better prevent and prepare for oil spills. The Washington coast's sole oil-spill response vessel is moored at the tribe's Makah Marina in Neah Bay.

This year, the DOT received 797 eligible applications seeking a total of $9.5 billion. At least two dozen of them came from Washington state. The DOT has yet to release the names of all the winners who will share the $600 million. The department funds an average of about 50 TIGER projects a year.

In 2013, Sound Transit received two grants totaling $24 million. More than half of that money was to add two dedicated high-occupancy lanes on I-90 to prepare for light-rail service over Lake Washington.

The city of Seattle also received $14 million last year for a portion of the six-lane Mercer Corridor East project near Seattle Center.

The TIGER grants are awarded on merit to infrastructure deemed most critical to local, regional or national interests. Even so, Murray's spokesman Eli Zupnick said the senator wrote letters supporting applicants from Washington and spoke to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx "to make sure he understood their value to Washington state and the regional economy."

Peter McGraw, spokesman for the Port of Seattle, called the $20 million "a very significant" sum that would pay for much-needed upgrades at Terminal 46, which is across from the sports stadiums in Sodo. It now has room for five cranes to serve one big ship. With space for more cranes after the expansion of the dock rail, the terminal can serve two super post-Panamax ships loaded with more than 10,000 containers.

McGraw said the Port may apply for more TIGER grants in the future. It recently closed Terminal 5 for upgrades. Among other things, its docks need strengthening and the berth needs deepening to accommodate the larger ships.

(c)2014 The Seattle Times