The ability of the Port of Tucson to process ocean freight via rail helped Pima County land a $5 million federal grant for the project.

A $5 million grant to expand the ability to service rail freight in Tucson has put the region in a new league, officials said Saturday.

The Port of Tucson received the award from the U.S. Department of Transportation to build a ramp off Union Pacific’s main line that will allow a train to run through the facility and journey coast to coast.

“I can’t believe it,” Port of Tucson owner Alan Levin said Saturday after he heard the news from U.S. Rep. Ron Barber.

It was the third time he had applied for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant.

Officials told the port there were $8 billion worth of requests and only $500 million available, said Mike Levin, Alan’s son.

The port will be able to service 240 containers daily without having to pull a train apart, saving time and money for imports and exports rolling through Tucson, Levin said.

“In less than 15 hours I can unload and reload that train, and it can head on out to Long Beach,” he said. With the high-speed switch, the train can roll off the Union Pacific main line at up to 45 mph and come to a stop in front of the Port of Tucson.

Union Pacific gave the port permission earlier this year to service international ocean containers via Long Beach and Los Angeles ports twice a week. The port can also send containers from Tucson to the California ports five days a week, which gives local business the ability to export goods worldwide.

Before that designation, ocean containers bound for Southern Arizona had to be trucked directly to the importer. The empty containers were then returned by truck to the California ports.

For an export shipment, the empty container was trucked to Arizona and returned to Long Beach or Los Angeles loaded.

The alternative of rolling a 120-car, double-stacked train through town takes 240 trucks off the road, lowering fuel costs and shortening delivery time.

“The biggest benefit is that local businesses will be able to be part of the global economy, whether receiving or exporting,” Levin said. “Local businesses are really the ones that will benefit.”

The 27-year-old Port of Tucson is a 780-acre facility on Tucson’s southeast side. The family business has invested more than $15 million in the project.

Levin said he is indebted to Pima County administrators and supervisors who applied for the grant on behalf of the Port of Tucson.

“It’s taken a lot of time and a lot of meetings to sell the vision,” he said. “This validates everything I’ve been trying to do.”

Former Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup, who was recently appointed the honorary consul to South Korea views the Port of Tucson as a tool in his new role of increasing trade between the two countries.

“It is an extraordinarily important moment for the region because we really haven’t been able to compete globally,” Walkup said. “We’re now playing a new game.”

He stressed that the news was not simply a boon for businesses.

“Expanded trade and commerce ultimately means better quality jobs for Tucson,” Walkup said.

In a statement announcing the award, Barber said the port’s role in expanding Southern Arizona’s economy is the biggest impact.

“The expansion of the port’s current capacity…dramatically increases Arizona’s competitiveness in overseas markets and distinguishes this project as one of regional significance.”

Contact reporter Gabriela Rico at or 573-4232.