Work on New Portal Bridge Reaches Milestone, Federal Funding Not Yet in Place

John Reitmeyer | October 26, 2018 | Transportation
Preparatory work for new rail bridge over Hackensack River is on schedule, but whether Trump administration will pony up federal share of cost to complete it is not certain

Credit: Scott Clinton/Amtrak
Important "pre-construction" work for Portal Bridge replacement over the Hackensack River is going ahead.
More than $20 million worth of “early stage” construction work that will help pave the way for the replacement of a key Northeast Corridor rail bridge near Secaucus Junction remains on schedule and due to be finished early next year.

Crews have been making steady progress this year during what’s known as the pre-construction phase of the long-planned Portal Bridge replacement, according to the latest update from the Gateway Development Corporation, the agency overseeing the project.

The pre-construction work involves building a retaining wall and moving fiber-optic infrastructure, among other tasks. Crews also recently celebrated a milestone at the site when they erected a massive new utility pole, officials said.

Once the early-stage work is completed, the site will be ready for the final phase of the project — building a brand-new rail bridge over the Hackensack River. But that’s where things get complicated because the federal government has yet to sign off on its share of funding for that phase of the project, which has an estimated price tag of $1.5 billion. Ideally, President Donald Trump and the Congress will release the federal funding needed in time to keep the project on schedule since the existing span is over a century old and is subject to regular breakdowns that can delay train travel throughout the entire Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C. But that remains to be seen.

Frequent breakdowns on existing bridge

What needs to be replaced: the old Portal Bridge
The replacement of the Portal Bridge is part of the broader infrastructure-renewal program known as Gateway that also calls for building a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River. 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 swing-span bridge is used by both Amtrak and NJ Transit, carrying as many as 200,000 passengers across the river in each direction on daily trips to and from Penn Station in New York City.

But the existing bridge sits too close to the water to accommodate all boat traffic and is prone to frequent breakdowns when it must be opened. At times, officials say it has to be hammered back into place manually.

The project’s next phase calls for the construction of the “Portal North Bridge,” a high-level, fixed-span bridge that would move the two-track crossing more than 50-feet above the river, obviating the need for it to open. Federal and state officials have said the replacement could increase passenger-train capacity by 10 percent, and would allow trains to get across the river faster and more reliably.

Last year, state and federal officials celebrated the launch of the pre-construction phase, which is being funded through a combination of $20 million in state and federal dollars. Officials recognized a construction milestone for that phase last weekend when the first four sections of a 222-foot “monopole” were erected on the Secaucus side of the river. Another significant utility pole will also soon go up at the construction site to allow for utilities in the area to be moved away from the site of the new bridge, officials said.

The pre-construction phase also involves building a new pier for construction barges, laying down a 5,560-foot retaining wall, creating a new steel bridge for water utilities, and relocating fiber-optic cables. All that work should be done by early 2019, officials said.

Enough ‘skin in the game’?

Gateway’s original financing plan called for 50 percent of the overall $30 billion cost of the bridge, tunnel and other infrastructure work to be covered by the federal government, with the remainder paid for by New Jersey, New York, and the Port Authority. But earlier this year federal transportation officials questioned whether the states were putting enough “skin in the game.”

Artist's rendering of new Portal North Bridge
They also downgraded the priority rating of the Portal Bridge replacement, a move that threatened to jeopardize the awarding of any significant federal dollars for the next phase of the project. (The pre-construction work was not impacted by the decision because its $20 million funding had already been authorized by state and federal officials.)

In response to the Trump administration’s concerns about the bridge replacement, the Murphy administration has authorized a $600 million bond issue that’s being financed through the state Economic Development Authority to beef up the local share of funding for the project’s next phase. Other technical changes were made to the bridge-replacement proposal to address other issues raised by federal officials in hopes of getting a higher priority-rating to keep the project alive.

Trump using rail improvements as leverage with Schumer?

It remains to be seen whether Trump, a Republican, will continue to pose a threat to the rail improvements since he is reportedly using them as leverage in dealings with U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the powerful New York Democrat who is a strong backer of Gateway. Among other political reasons, Trump is widely believed to have linked funding for Gateway to his push to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Despite the uncertainty, local officials have chosen to put the focus on the progress that’s already being made at the Portal Bridge site, including the construction of the new utility poles, which could still be put into use even if the next phase of the bridge replacement remains stalled.

“The early construction on Portal North Bridge is part of the many projects that will ultimately make up the huge undertaking of building Gateway — the most critical transportation infrastructure program in the nation,” said Jerry Zaro, who serves as New Jersey’s representative on the GDC board.