Cargo containers at Wando Welch (copy)

The State Ports Authority set its third consecutive record for annual containerized cargo growth in 2018. The agency hopes to get grant money to help pay for projects that will ease traffic while boosting cargo capacity. Provided/State Ports Authority

A new grant program could help the State Ports Authority pay for a trio of big-ticket projects it hopes will alleviate truck traffic while making room for more cargo containers.

The federal Port Infrastructure Development Program will provide nearly $300 million for initiatives that enhance safety and efficiency and promote greater manufacturing and agricultural exports. About one-third of that money is earmarked for the nation's 15 busiest ports, Charleston's.

"We are thoroughly reviewing the grant opportunity and feel our proposed barge program, incorporating a second berth at the Hugh Leatherman Terminal and appropriate infrastructure at Wando Welch Terminal will compete well for these funds," said Barbara Melvin, the authority's chief operating officer.

The barge plan has drawn support from local leaders who call it an innovative way to get large trucks off busy roads like Interstate 526. The SPA wants to use barges to move containers by water from Wando Welch in Mount Pleasant to the Leatherman Terminal under construction in North Charleston. The containers would then be put on trains at a nearby rail yard.

The project could eliminate 200,000 truck trips annually on Interstate 526 and other roads, the authority said.

Last year, the federal DOT designated the barge route as a marine highway, making the proposal eligible for federal grants. The authority hasn't announced a price tag for the venture but has applied for environmental permits that would allow an extension of the terminal's berth.

The other two projects would increase capacity and efficiency at the port, which last year handled a record 2.3 million cargo boxes measured in 20-foot increments.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said the grant program is intended to "help strengthen, modernize and improve our country’s maritime systems and gateway ports."

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The DOT will evaluate projects based on how well they leverage federal funds, their costs and benefits and how quickly the projects can be started. The agency also wants to distribute the grant to a wide range of ports throughout the country.

The minimum award size will be $10 million and federal dollars can't cover more than 80 percent of a project's costs.

The American Association of Port Authorities estimates it will take $66 billion to pay for the infrastructure needs at U.S. ports. About 85% of that money would go toward road and rail improvements and deep-draft navigation plans, like the $558 million project underway to dig Charleston Harbor to 52 feet.

The harbor deepening is among $2.4 billion the authority — along with state and federal governments — is spending to modernize its existing terminals, build a new terminal and buy cranes and other equipment to accommodate large container ships.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_