NEWPORT — The Pell Bridge ramp realignment project received a significant boost on Thursday, when Sen. Jack Reed announced a $20 million federal grant to support the initiative.

The state Department of Transportation has proposed a number of options for the realignment of the ramps entering and leaving the Pell Bridge in Newport, with the hope being to “enhance safety, relieve traffic congestion, improve efficiency and free up dozens of acres of land for economic development,” a press release from Reed’s office says.

"Again, I think [the realignment] is a really core part of the project," Reed told The Daily News. "But first, there has to be appropriate public input by the city and the neighbors to make sure this is done consistently with the city's plan."

The estimated cost of the project, according to DOT, is $66.1 million, with local and state contributions. The $20 million grant covers about a third of that cost. Reed, D-R.I., is the ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and related agencies.

The federal funds, which were secured by Reed in the fiscal 2018 appropriations law, will go to DOT, the press release says.

Reed said he is optimistic the funding bill for fiscal 2019 will provide more transportation funds for the state to use at its discretion, but not additional funding specifically for the realignment project.

At more than 11,000 feet long, the Pell Bridge is the longest suspension bridge in New England. Opened in 1969, it is owned and operated by the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority.

Reed, along with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, led efforts to allocate $1.5 billion for the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) grant program, formerly known as the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program, in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018. BUILD funding is designed to ensure that competitive federal funding is available for transportation infrastructure projects nationwide.

“I am pleased to help deliver this federal funding for Newport and the state. I commend Secretary Chao for recognizing the importance and potential of this project to improve safety and efficiency while spurring economic development,” Reed says in the release, referring to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao. “This is an exciting investment opportunity for Newport that could really transform the gateway to the city while relieving traffic congestion and improving mobility.”

Reed said the groundwork for the $20 million in funding was laid in 2005 and 2006, when the state explored "improving traffic flow into and out of Newport and opening up opportunities for economic development." In the 2005 transportation law, Reed secured $5 million to launch the state and local planning process for the realignment.

The city envisions development of an Innovation Hub of businesses that would be focused on creating resiliency in the face of climate change, oceanographic work, alternative energy systems and defense industry areas specializing in underwater, maritime and cybersecurity technologies.

Asked what the redevelopment of the North End would mean, Reed said, "It would be a tremendous opportunity for the city and the state. Newport is one of our great tourist centers in the state. This would make it easier to get to and more attractive when you arrive." The area's proximity to Naval Station Newport and the Naval War College could be a draw for defense contractors, he added.

The reconstruction of the Pell Bridge ramps is in the design phase with DOT. The goal is to address safety issues and provide a smaller footprint for the infrastructure. DOT says the “project will reduce congestion and vehicle queuing on the Pell Bridge and improve the connection between Newport's North End and the downtown area by reconfiguring the approach ramps to the Newport Pell Bridge. It will also spur economic development as it frees up parcels of land.”

RIDOT continues to seek public comment on the proposed project and must submit an environmental assessment to the Federal Highway Administration for approval before moving forward with preliminary work in the spring or summer of 2019.