The U.S. Dept. of Transportation has awarded $221 million in grants to help finance infrastructure improvements at 18 ports.

The awards from DOT’s Maritime Administration, announced Oct. 15, will go to projects in 15 states, plus the U.S. Virgin Islands. Two states—Texas and Washington—received two grants each.

The funding for the grants is down 23% from fiscal 2019, when Congress appropriated $292 million for the program. The 2019 appropriation totaled $225 million, which includes administrative expenses.

The largest grant in the 2020 round is $21.9 million to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It will help fund rebuilding and modernizing cargo handling and storage infrastructure at the Crown Bay Terminal. Improvements include bulkhead and concrete apron rehabilitation, and rebuilding storage areas.

The Virgin Islands Port Authority also has received a grant for the same project from the U.S. Commerce Dept. The amount for that grant, announced Oct. 8, is approximately the same as the one from DOT, $21.9 million.

The Commerce Dept. grant is drawn from disaster relief funds in the wake of 2017 natural disasters, including Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

Dana Gartzke, a senior Commerce Dept. economic development official, noted that the Virgin Islands port facilities were hit hard in 2017 by Hurricane Irma. Gartzke said in a statement that the new project "will help the port become more resilient" in facing future storms.

Norfolk, Va., received the second-largest of the new DOT grants, $20.2 million, for expansion of the International Terminals central railyard. Work includes constructing eight working tracks. It will double the existing rail capacity, according to the Port of Virginia.

The project's total cost is $44 million, according to the port. The Virginia Dept. of Rail and Public Transportation is contributing $16.7 million and the port will put up $7.4 million.

John F. Reinhart, the Virginia Port Authority's chief executive officer and executive director, said in an Oct. 19 statement that expanding the railyard "is the logical next step to optimizing the investment we are making there." Reinhart noted that later in October, the port will close the construction phase for a $450-million expansion program.

Other large awards in DOT's latest round of port grants include $19.8 million to Seward, Alaska; $19.5 million to Conneaut, Ohio; and $16.7 million to Wilmington, N.C.

For this year’s round, appropriators specified that at least $200 million of the total available must go to coastal or Great Lakes ports.

DOT also noted that eight of the winning 18 projects are located in Opportunity Zones. The zones, established under the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, provide for tax incentives for investments in economically distressed areas.

The American Association of Port Authorities welcomed the funding. Christopher J. Connor, AAPA president and chief executive officer, said in a statement, “These awards represent a significant step toward investing in one of our country’s most precious and important assets—our seaports.”

Looking ahead, for fiscal 2021 the House Appropriations Committee has approved a DOT funding bill that includes $300 million for the port infrastructure grants, up 33% from the enacted 2020 level.

But Congress has been unable to pass any appropriations measures for all of fiscal 2021, which began Oct. 1. There has been no action even at the committee level on 2021 spending bills in the Senate.

In the meantime, most federal programs, including the DOT port grants, are operating at 2020 levels through Dec. 11 under a continuing resolution.

Story updated on 10/20/2020 with additional material from the Port of Virginia and corrected the number of grant recipients to say the projects are in 15 states plus the U.S. Virgin Islands.