NJ leaders call on President Trump to match funds to replace bridge that cripples the region

Posted at 7:45 PM, Aug 28, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-28 19:45:22-04

SECAUCUS, N.J. — Fires have shut it down twice in the last few years, during which it’s also malfunctioned multiple times, and it needs millions of dollars annually just to keep it functioning.

There is no doubt that the country’s busiest rail bridge is in need of replacement — a variety of studies have shown that — but federal dollars to make it happen have dried up, despite local funding to move the project forward.

On Wednesday, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy led a group of local members of Congress, and other legislators, in calling on President Donald Trump to match local funding to get the Portal Bridge replaced.

“I continue to be frustrated,” Gov. Murphy said at a news conference at the Frank Lautenberg rail hub here.

His frustration about the lack of funding to replace the 110 year-old swing bridge was outdone by the emotions of commuters.

“It’s never on time,” said NJTransit commuter Sal Spilletti about the delays he regularly experiences, sometimes because of problems with the bridge.

Delays are “anywhere from 10 to 20 [minutes], but the longest has been 45,” said Emily Turner, who frequently rides NJTransit trains, but not daily.

“I know a lot of people who do it daily,” she added, “and there’s a lot of delays. They don’t like it.”

They’re among the more than 600,000 commuters whose trains cross the Portal Bridge every day. It’s a 110 year-old span that swings open to allow barge traffic to pass beneath it on the Hackensack River.

It regularly fails to close properly. When it does, delays clog Penn Station, in Midtown, the country’s busiest rail hub. Each bridge failure cripples productivity in our region.

It’s a huge loss, considering that the New York metro area accounts for 20 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.

Also, when the bridge fails to fully swing into a closed position, it has to be re-set, and is done so in one of the lowest-tech ways imaginable: workers have to bang the tracks into alignment, using sledgehammers.

“That is embarrassing not only to New Jersey, it is embarrassing to this country,” said Albiro Sires, the member of Congress from New Jersey’s 8th District.

He was among a half dozen members of Congress who’d joined the governor in the Wednesday news conference, to talk about what’s needed, going forward.

Replacing the bridge is estimated to cost about $1.8 billion dollars. The New Jersey state government has now secured $600 million toward the total. The Port Authority has pledged an additional $300 million.

The other half has to come from the federal government, according to a plan put in place prior to the Trump Administration coming to power in 2017. However, the administration has continued to say no.

“I’ve said it to him personally,” Gov. Murphy said, “we’re quite reasonable about this. These are our best estimates” for funding from local sources.

That was not reassuring to people who keep getting delayed on trains, who spoke with PIX11 News at Penn Station.

“I wouldn’t bet on anything with this federal government,” said Sherrill Ducharme. The Lawrenceville, New Jersey resident said that she’d been late for an appointment in the city on Wednesday because her morning train was more than a half hour late.

The Federal Transit Agency, or FTA, which would grant Trump Administration funding, issued a statement that indicates that some progress toward building a new Portal Bridge is being made.

“The Portal North Bridge project has multiple steps remaining before advancing in FTA’s CIG program, including overcoming several steps required under New Jersey law.”

“New Jersey Transit, the project’s sponsor, ” the statement continued, ”is on track to have the Portal North project re-reviewed this fall. The sponsor has made strides in meeting the requirements as enumerated in law.”

“Once the project meets the requirements for advancement into Engineering, prior to it being considered for a construction grant award, NJT must meet the requirements placed on all CIG project sponsors including:

  • completing all critical third-party agreements (including with Amtrak)
  • developing a firm and final cost, scope and schedule; and
  • demonstrating it has the financial capacity to fund unexpected cost increases or funding shortfalls.

These remaining issues have been clearly communicated to both NJT and New Jersey officials multiple times for several years.”

One member of Congress in attendance at Wednesday’s news conference, Tom Malinowski, said that he’d recently met with the head of the FTA, and was given some assurances that New Jersey had complied with the agency’s requests. He expressed cautious optimism that the bridge might finally begin to be replaced fairly soon.