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Celebrating Even the ‘Early Action’ Phase of Portal Bridge Project

With money tight and no word from feds if they’re going to free up funds anytime soon for Gateway, start of small project gets full groundbreaking treatment

portal bridge
Credit: Tim Larsen/Governor's Office
Train crossing the 100-year-old Portal Bridge. The swing gate opens when ships need to pass through, idling traffic until they're clear.

Thanks to an increasingly desperate predicament involving the aging rail infrastructure that links New Jersey and New York, and the scarcity of funding for any major improvements, even the smallest of steps forward on mass-transit projects are being celebrated as milestones.

Everyone from Gov. Chris Christie and New Jersey’s two U.S. senators to top officials from both Amtrak and New Jersey Transit attended a groundbreaking that was held in Kearny on Friday to mark the move to the “early action” phase of a long-planned project to replace the more than 100-year-old Portal Bridge.

Despite its age and obsolete technology — the bridge is a swing span that sits close to the Hackensack River and frequently breaks down when it opens for boat traffic – transportation officials have been unable to convince politicians to provide the more than $1 billion that’s needed to facilitate the span’s full replacement.

In the beginning

The groundbreaking that was held on Friday celebrated the start of about $20 million in initial construction work, which includes moving utilities, building a retaining wall, and setting up a pier that will help workers gain more access to the site.

But even as the dignitaries celebrated the step forward, they also acknowledged that the future of the bridge replacement and other elements of what’s known as the Gateway infrastructure initiative still remains very much in question as President Donald Trump and the Republican Congress have yet to fully commit to funding the planned improvements, which could cost nearly $30 billion. Still, with a full 10 percent of the nation’s gross-domestic product riding on the river crossing and a nearby century-old trans-Hudson tunnel, they decided even the incremental move was a cause for celebration.

“I understand there’s a lot more that we need to do, and I understand there’s a lot more that we need to bring together, but today makes a great case to everyone that we are all ready to build and ready to get this started,” said Anthony Coscia, the chairman of Amtrak’s board of directors, during the groundbreaking.

Critical location

Opened in 1910 for the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Portal Bridge spans the Hackensack River at a key location along the Northeast Corridor near Secaucus Junction. Now owned by the federal government, the span is used by both Amtrak and NJ Transit, carrying an estimated 166,000 passengers across the river in each direction on daily trips to and from Penn Station in New York.

The $1.5 billion bridge-replacement project calls for a high-level, fixed-span bridge that would move the crossing more than 50-feet above the river, preventing the need for the openings that right now frustrate commuters who sit on idled trains when there are delays.

The construction of the bridge has already been designed and approved through a partnership involving Amtrak, NJ Transit, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and U.S. Department of Transportation. And the $20 million in pre-construction work was authorized by NJ Transit’s Board of Directors earlier this year.

Living on borrowed time

But the federal government’s commitment to supporting the full Portal Bridge replacement and the rest of the Gateway initiative is still largely in doubt, causing widespread concern for transportation advocates who warn that the region’s major rail infrastructure is living on borrowed time. In addition to the advanced age of the Portal Bridge, the tunnel that’s currently used to bring Amtrak and NJ Transit trains under the Hudson River into New York every day is also more than 100 years old, and it suffered significant damage during 2012’s superstorm Sandy that will eventually need to be repaired. Under Gateway, an entirely new tunnel would be built, and the existing tunnel would then be rehabbed and eventually reopened to double capacity.

Under an initial agreement to finance Gateway that was drafted during the tenure of former President Barack Obama, the cost of the work was to be shared between the federal government, New Jersey, New York, and the Port Authority. The arrangement specifically called for the federal commitment to cover roughly half the bill, with the two states and the Port Authority picking up the balance.

But a budget summary that was released by Trump’s administration in March set off alarms about the federal government’s commitment to remaining a full partner in the Gateway effort. The most troubling section of Trump’s budget proposal called for a freezing of new federal-grant agreements for infrastructure projects like Gateway that aren’t yet fully funded.

Since then, the House of Representatives has passed a spending bill that sets aside up to $900 million for Gateway, and U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) said during Friday’s groundbreaking that language in a Senate measure would also allow the infrastructure investments to qualify for federal dollars.

No firm commitment

But Trump has yet to make a firm, public commitment, and he could end up having final say. His reticence also comes despite a visit at the White House last month from a bipartisan delegation of elected officials from New Jersey and New York that included governors, senators, and members of Congress who made an in-person pitch for Gateway.

Christie, a Republican and longtime friend of Trump’s, said during the groundbreaking on Friday that he will continue lobbying the president to make sure Gateway is one of the priorities that gets funding in the final version of the new federal budget. The stakes are particularly high for Christie, given his cancellation seven years ago of a long-planned project to build a new trans-Hudson tunnel for NJ Transit that was originally slated to open sometime next year. The two-term governor instead used most of the tunnel funding to pay for road and bridge projects, delaying a politically unpopular gas-tax hike until after his 2013 reelection campaign.

“We have a little more work to do with the White House,” Christie said on Friday about the funding for Gateway. “I intend to be out front on that work with the White House to make sure that the commitment of the federal government that was made under President Obama is kept by President Trump, and that we will see this project to completion.”

Booker’s role

It was U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) who has received credit for setting up a bistate meeting with federal officials that led to the initial Gateway funding agreement being reached in 2015, and he said on Friday that addressing the infrastructure concerns remains his “obsession.” The former Newark mayor also laid out the issue in stark terms, saying it’s more than just the convenience of New Jersey’s rail commuters that’s currently at stake.

“We have a long way to go because, right now, what we are facing in the most economically productive region in North America, we are facing economic Armageddon if we do not get this Gateway project done,” Booker said.

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