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Scheduling Boat Traffic to Keep Unreliable Portal Bridge Closed at Rush Hour

If there are no big boats passing through swing bridge during peak train traffic, there’s no need to open the portal — and risk it getting stuck in the open position

New Jersey rail rider Brenna Muchel recalls fuming after being trapped on trains stopped dead on the tracks because the 108-year-old Portal Bridge between Newark and New York’s Penn Station got stuck when trying to shut properly. It happened five times last year and impacted tens of thousands of passengers.

“Especially if you’re in a location where you don’t have cell service, and I can’t let my boss know that I’m going to be coming in late,” Muchel said. “My whole commute ended up taking two and a half hours just to get back to my apartment, that normally door to door should be 30 minutes if everything runs as smoothly as possible.”

The swing span is built so low that it must pivot open for large boats to pass by on the Hackensack River. Closing the cranky old bridge on a bad day can take hours, requiring workers with sledgehammers to pound the locks shut so train tracks line up safely.

Scheduling river traffic

On Friday, officials announced a partial solution. At Sen. Bob Menendez’s request, the U.S. Coast Guard has agreed to halt big-boat traffic on the river during the morning and evening rush, so the bridge stays closed and the trains keep moving.

“Limiting when the Portal Bridge can open is a good place to start. This agreement will help us reduce the risk of future failures and ultimately prevent the kind of massive disruptions that wreak havoc on New Jersey families’ lives,” Menendez said.

“We recognize that this change actually is a hardship to a lot of the boat owners and users, and we appreciate their flexibility in discussing this and arriving at this temporary fix and this temporary solution with us. But really at the end of the day, having a movable bridge here in this spot really doesn’t make any sense. It’s like putting a drawbridge basically in the middle of the New Jersey Turnpike, which you would never do,” said Amtrak spokesperson Craig Schulz.

That’s because the Portal Bridge is a linchpin on the Northeast Corridor, where a train passes every two minutes during the rush — 470 trains per day. Construction has already started on its $1.7 billion replacement, which is part of the Gateway project, even as the political battle over federal funding continues.

“What we need in the long term is 21st century rail transportation, a 53-foot-high, fixed, nonmovable bridge that does not have to open and close, ever, and a new tunnel into and out of New York,” said Steve Sigmund, chief of public outreach for the Gateway Development Corp.

Meanwhile, the ban will halt river boat traffic from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Commuters applauded.

“Definitely works for me. It allows me to get to Manhattan on time into work,” said North Arlington resident Susan Twumbaa.

“I’m hopeful that this will be a good change,” Muchel said.

The arrangement will last for six months, and if it works, it could become a permanent rule change — or at least until a new bridge is built.

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