Portal Bridge clears major hurdle and likely to get funding for replacement, Murphy says
About the Portal Bridge, a railroad bridge over the Hackensack River in Kearny and Secaucus. NorthJersey.com
The notorious, century-old Portal Bridge that has frustrated commuters with countless delays is closer to being replaced after the Federal Transit Administration committed to moving toward funding nearly half the project, officials said late Friday afternoon.
The roughly $1.8 billion replacement of the bridge, considered an integral piece to the much more expensive long-term Gateway tunnel linking New Jersey and New York, has long been a priority for New Jersey lawmakers and rail agencies. The state has already approved $600 million in borrowing for NJ Transit, and Amtrak, the rail agency that owns and operates that section of the Northeast corridor, has committed to funding for the project.
The Federal Transit Administration said in a letter to NJ Transit that it elevated the bridge project to the next engineering phase, making it eligible for $766.5 million in federal funding. Gov. Phil Murphy, a first-term Democrat who dined last weekend with Republican President Donald Trump, tweeted Friday that the bridge will "enter into its engineering phase with FULL federal funding."
In the letter to NJ Transit's chief executive officer, Kevin Corbett, the federal administration said the rail agency must submit a revised financial plan and "demonstrate financial capacity to cover an unexpected cost increase or funding shortfall" as well as "demonstrate commitment of funds for the intercity rail portion of the project."
NJ Transit has seen its ridership and revenues drop precipitously since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the state in March.
Anthony Coscia, chairman of the Amtrak board of trustees, said the announcement Friday is "typically the gate you pass through" before getting federal funding.
"Today's announcement represents a very substantial milestone in the project and it clears the way for the negotiation for a full funding grant agreement and virtually assures that we should achieve that," Coscia said in an interview.
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Corbett said he was "extremely pleased" to learn of the federal agency's decision, which would also be an economic boost for the state suffering from the slowdown caused by the pandemic.
"With the $1.8 billion Portal North Bridge now advancing, along with the approximately $2.3 billion in capital projects we’ve advanced in the last two years, that’s more than $4 billion in construction work that will not only improve reliability and the customer experience, but will also contribute significantly to New Jersey’s economic recovery following the pandemic," Corbett said in a statement.
The bridge over the Hackensack River in Kearny is key to Amtrak's Northeast corridor connecting Boston to Washington, D.C. It was built more than 100 years ago and typically carries an average 450 Amtrak and NJ Transit trains and 200,000 passengers a day. But it often gets stuck open when allowing maritime traffic to pass through, adding to the many complications of commuters traveling between New Jersey and New York on a daily basis.
It is also tied to the stalled Gateway train tunnel envisioned to run beneath the Hudson River connecting the two states. But that project, once on a track for $30 billion in overall funding, has been stalled by the Trump administration.
Improving the Portal Bridge has been a priority toward the eventual Gateway project, but that has also moved in fits and starts. Former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, and Democrats from New Jersey's Congressional delegation broke ground in 2017 on initial construction at the crossing.
Since taking office, Murphy has made Gateway and the Portal Bridge one of his priorities. The Economic Development Authority had already doubled the state's share for the project, from $300 million to $600 million. A federal grant last month of $91.5 million showed even more promise.
But many people were left confused after Murphy dined with Trump at the president's Bedminster golf resort. Trump tweeted afterward that he had given the Portal Bridge "authorization to proceed!" But not further explanation was offered at the time.
It appears that Murphy's dinner with the president paid a significant dividend.
Within a week, the Federal Transit Administration under his authority moved the bridge project to the next phase and closer to full funding.
"I am honored to have been able to make the case for Portal North directly to President Trump," Murphy said in a statement. "I thank the president and his administration for committing to this project and helping us usher in a new era of safe, modern, and reliable infrastructure for our region.”
Federal Democratic lawmakers, some of whom had been advocating for the Portal and Gateway projects for years, praised the administration's decision as positive news for commuters.
“We are one step closer to securing a federal full funding agreement to replace the oft-malfunctioning Portal Bridge,” Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking member of the Senate’s transit subcommittee, said in a statement. “Portal has long outlived its usefulness and has become the bane of existence for transit riders mired in delays on the Northeast Corridor."
Sen. Cory Booker said replacing the bridge will give relief to commuters, who often face delays getting into New York.
“Anything that speeds this project along is good news for New Jerseyans,” Booker said in a statement. “Still, our work is far from over. We must remain focused on long-term solutions to replace our obsolete infrastructure by moving projects like Gateway forward in order to help strengthen our economic growth, boost job creation, and ensure commuter safety.”
Dustin Racioppi is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to his work covering New Jersey’s governor and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.