NJ leaders break ground on Portal North Bridge

A star-studded bipartisan lineup threw some real dirt Friday to officially launch construction of a new Portal North Bridge. The $1.64 billion project will replace the current cranky “swing”-style span that must swivel open and closed for river traffic and now carries more than 470 trains daily over the Hackensack, one every two minutes, during rush hour.

The Portal North Bridge project leads off the long-awaited Gateway trans-Hudson railway rebuilding program at a crucial spot on the Northeast Corridor. But Friday’s ceremony marked a qualified leap of faith without the Trump administration’s firm commitment to pony up its share of federal funding.

“I know there’s a trendy notion that the private sector will somehow step up to finance all of our crumbling infrastructure, but for me that’s nothing more than wishful thinking,” said Sen. Bob Menendez.

The House has appropriated $900,000, but that’s not locked in. And delays have already boosted the Gateway program’s overall cost, from $23 billion to $29 billion.

“This is a good day,” said Sen. Cory Booker. “New Jerseyans should be very happy today, because now we have visible signs of progress and momentum. The only thing lacking right now is the president of the U.S. honoring the commitments the federal government made to the state of New Jersey under President Obama.”

“The president doesn’t need the explanation on this project. He’s lived here and developed real estate here his entire life. He knows how important this is to this economy of this region and I am absolutely confident the president will partner with us to make sure this entire project is done,” said Gov. Chris Christie.

The problem with a century-old swing bridge is that in 2014, out of 100 openings, 15 percent of the time, the bridge failed to close properly. Workers had to go out onto the span to fix it. Trains were stopped.

Designs for the new two-track bridge show it would arch over the river.

“No longer will the trains rely on these massive wheels behind me that you see and then the people in Penn Station Control Center, nervously waiting for it to reconnect to the Northeast Corridor,” said Amtrak Board of Directors Chair Anthony Coscia. “Or people with sledgehammers, literally having to bang it shut.”

Critics claim a new railway under the Hudson River would be opening next year, if Christie had not cancelled the ARC tunnel project in 2010, forfeiting $3 billion in federal funding. Christie on Friday continued to call ARC a bad deal.

“There’s a fairness to the funding which did not exist in ARC and there’s an efficacy to the project. The past project was going to the basement of Macy’s. This is going to New York Penn Station, doing what should be done,” said Christie.

“I have a different view. The reality is, we lost that money and now we’re going to have to fight again. So, I’m focused on the future,” said Menendez.

The Portal North Bridge is part one of that future — an integral connection along the Northeast Corridor.