Congressman optimistic about Portal Bridge project as NJ lawmakers make funding push

Below is an article written by Colleen Wilson and published by the North Jersey Record on August 28, 2019.

The project’s funding comes down to an approval by President Donald Trump, said the president of the New Jersey Senate.

SECAUCUS —  A congressman who sits on a transportation committee indicated optimism that the federal government will fund the dilapidated Portal Bridge rail crossing, at a press conference Wednesday on the vital crossing’s future.

While many of the lawmakers gathered at the NJ Transit station in Secaucus reiterated the same pleas to the White House to fund the project, Rep. Tom Malinowski suggested some promise for the project.

“I don’t count my bridges before they’re built, but I’m increasingly confident that the Portal North project is going to happen soon,” the freshman Democrat said. “I spoke to the head of the [Federal Transit Administration] last week … they acknowledged that we have taken every single step that we need to take to get this thing off the ground.”

An application for federal funding to cover just under half of the project’s costs — the total of which is now estimated to be $1.8 billion with contingencies — has been stuck at the FTA. So has an application for its partner project, the Gateway program to repair the damaged train tunnel between New York and New Jersey and build a new one.

The Trump administration has shown little interest in moving the projects forward, even as many consider them among the most urgent infrastructure projects in the country. The swing-span Portal Bridge, as most lawmakers in attendance pointed out, often gets stuck after opening, requiring a sledgehammer to bang it into place.

Yet the Portal Bridge project’s FTA priority rating has remained in the “medium-low” category since February 2018, a demotion by two points after it was originally designated as “medium-high,” the second-highest rank on the administration’s five-rung scale.

In an effort to get a more favorable rating from the FTA last year, Gov. Phil Murphy increased the local funding pledge for the bridge from $300 million to $600 million, backed by 30-year bonds that would be repaid from the state Transportation Trust Fund revenues.

The agency declined to change the rating, even after its acting administrator, K. Jane Williams, called the new funding a “new ballgame.” And in June, Williams wrote in an opinion piece for The Record and that the local costs that will be taken on by the state and NJ Transit were not properly “secured.”

But Malinowski said that about a month ago he began to hear a “different message” from Williams.

“She said that there were still a couple of things that New Jersey needed to do, technical things that needed to be approved … we have now done all of those things,” Malinowski said. “They have essentially acknowledged that we have done the things that they have asked us to do.”

“All it takes now is the president to recognize that, unlike a lot of places, New Jersey is saying we’re going to put our share up,” said Sweeney, who along with Malinowski was joined by Murphy, Rep. Mikie Sherrill, state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. and others. “It’s time to go forward. It’s too important for the economy and this country to let this bridge fail.”

The Portal Bridge and tunnel access to Manhattan are main arteries in the bustling Northeast Corridor, serving a region that contributes to about 20% of the national GDP.

When opened for barges crossing the Hackensack River, the Portal Bridge often doesn’t close properly. It’s a situation that has had debilitating effects on dozens of trains and tens of thousands of passengers throughout the rail network, mainly NJ Transit and Amtrak.

In March, the U.S. Coast Guard agreed that for six months it would prohibit marine vessels from requesting passage through the Portal Bridge from 5 to 10 a.m. and 3 to 8 p.m. That deal is set to expire next month.

The Portal Bridge rehabilitation plan would raise the crossing and improve the railroad so trains can travel on it faster. Right now, trains have to slow to 60 mph when they approach the bridge, when they could be going as fast as 90 mph if the infrastructure were updated.

Murphy said the project is “shovel-ready” and “fully designed.”

“New Jersey is ready to get started on America’s next great infrastructure project, but we can’t do that until the Trump administration stops its delays, removes its artificial roadblocks and let’s us get to work,” the governor said. “We all know it’s simply a matter of time that the Northeast Corridor grinds to a halt because a cranky Portal Bridge got stuck open again.”

The Gateway program is an $11.7 billion proposal that would repair the existing rail tunnel, damaged by Superstorm Sandy, that connects Manhattan and New Jersey and would build a new rail passageway under the Hudson River.

Last week, Amtrak, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Gateway Program Development Corp., the nonprofit overseeing the tunnel construction program, announced that it had re-submitted its federal funding application after shaving off $1.4 billion from the overall cost.

The hope is that the reduced request for federal contribution (now $5.4 billion) will spur the Trump administration to commit money for the projects it has snubbed so far.

Similarly, NJ Transit is expected to submit a revised financial plan for the bridge in the coming weeks to the FTA.