U.S. Sen. Susan Collins visited the Mack Point cargo port in Searsport July 8 to get a firsthand view of how a $7 million federal grant would benefit the facility. It was the senator’s first visit to Mack Point, and she lauded the port as a source of jobs and a conduit for alternative energy sources.

The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded a $14 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery  grant to the state of Maine in February. The money is intended to advance Maine’s “three-port strategy,” which has focused investments on the state’s three deep-water ports in Portland, Searsport and Eastport.

Of the $14 million grant, $5 million will go to Portland for improvements to the wharf and an upland storage facility. Eastport will get $2 million toward a storage facility and a new conveyor system to speed processing.

Searsport was the recipient of the lion’s share of the grant award — $7 million — much of which will go toward purchasing a heavy-lift mobile harbor crane.

“The idea is to help the port further diversify its customer base and attract new customers,” John Henshaw, executive director of the Maine Port Authority, told VillageSoup in February. “There are a couple of smaller cranes at the facility currently. This is a much larger and more capable crane.”

On Thursday, Collins met privately for a half-hour with officials from Sprague Energy, the company that operates the cargo port, then took a brief tour of the facility, stopping to watch longshoremen load wind turbine components onto flatbed trucks.

“It must be pretty nerve-wracking,” Collins said, as workers guided a bus-sized nacelle — the gearbox that connects the turbine tower to the hub and blades — onto a truck using a massive crane. “That’s incredible skill. I’m very impressed … I think it’s a real tribute to the people who work here that we have the expertise to handle these.”

According to Terminal Manager Duane Seekins, the new crane will cost between $4 million and $4.5 million, and will likely come from Germany, as they are not currently manufactured in the United States. It will have a 250-ton capacity, as compared with the 175-ton capacity at Mack Point today. The rest of the award, he said, would be used to buy accessories — straps, bars and the like.

Mack Point saw its first shipment of wind turbine parts in 2006, for the 28-turbine Mars Hill development, and Seekins said the shipments have increased since then.

“It’s probably about 25 percent of our business here,” he said.

The parts have also increased in size, as indicated by the stock at Mack Point Thursday, which included components of 2.5-megawatt turbines, for a development in Sheffield, Vt., and 3-megawatt turbines for Kibby Mountain in western Maine. The Mars Hill turbines and the three turbines in Freedom, by comparison, are 1.5 megawatts each.

Collins noted that the money from the TIGER grant would help the port meet increased demand for incoming wind power shipments, but would also allow the port to expand its capacity to export wood pellets, chips and aggregates. Seekins confirmed this was the case.

“In the end, this facility has the potential to create jobs for the state, ” said Collins.

The $1.5 billion TIGER program is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus bill. According to information on a government Web site documenting the distribution of ARRA funding, Maine has been the site of 1,706 awards, totaling close to $1 billion in contracts, grants and loans from Feb. 17, 2009, to March 31, 2010.

Last year, the Sprague and Irving Oil facilities at Mack Point received ARRA grants for port security improvements totaling $86,800. Seekins said Sprague used its $51,000 award for additional lighting and an under-dock monitoring system.