New Jersey Transit’s Board of Directors on June 13 approved a financing agreement with the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) that provides up to $600 million toward the construction of the first phase of a new Portal Bridge, a key component of the ambitious Gateway Project to improve passenger rail service between New York City and New Jersey. The funding commitment “solidifies New Jersey’s local share of the project cost,” NJT said.
The resolution authorizes NJT Executive Director Kevin Corbett and New Jersey Department of Transportation Commissioner and NJT Board Chair Dianne Gutierrez-Scaccetti to execute and deliver the funding agreement with the NJEDA, which will issue up to $600 million in bonds from the state’s Transportation Trust Fund (TTF), to be repaid over a 30-year term. This same funding structure was utilized in 1999 for the construction of NJT’s RiverLINE light rail system.
The existing Portal Bridge, built in 1910 by the Pennsylvania Railroad as part of the New York Improvements project, is a two-track, swing-type drawbridge that spans the Hackensack River in New Jersey. In recent years it has, due to its age, become an expensive maintenance nightmare for the Amtrak B&B crews responsible for its upkeep. It is known as the Achilles Heel of the Northeast Corridor, as it is a major choke point for NJT and Amtrak trains.
Design and engineering plans for the new Portal Bridge call for twin two-track, fixed-span structures: Portal North Bridge (phase 1) and Portal South Bridge (phase 2), together costing an estimated $1.5 billion. The new bridge will have clearance that accommodates current and forecasted maritime traffic, eliminating the need for a moveable span that interrupts rail operations and results in delays due to mechanical failures.
Portal North, fully designed and permitted, is included in the NJT/NJEDA resolution. Just under 2.5 miles long, it will, when completed, provide a 10% increase in peak-hour passenger capacity. Portal South is proposed as part of the Gateway Program, and when complete will double train capacity, combined with two new Hudson River tunnels.
On July 14, 2016, NJT entered into the Project Development phase of the FTA’s Capital Investment Grant (CIG) program. The Preliminary Design Phase for construction of Portal North is complete and a Record of Decision was received from the FTA in July 2017. Early Work construction, including utility relocation and right-of-way acquisition, is under way. NJT is the project’s sponsor.
In September 2017, NJT applied for CIG funding that, if approved by the FTA and received by NJT, would cover a portion of all project costs. NJT and NJEDA will support the application for CIG funds to move forward with an improved rating.
“We’re not going to kick the can down the road any longer,” said Gutierrez-Scaccetti.
“Our customers have suffered far too long from the outdated, unreliable Portal Bridge,” said. “A new bridge can’t wait any longer.”
The Gateway Program has been a politically contentious subject in the New York Metropolitan Area. The Trump Administration has repeatedly refused to honor a funding commitment made during the Obama Administration, creating tension between the USDOT and the congressional delegations of New York and New Jersey, led by Senators Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Cory Booker (D.-N.J.). Schumer for several months held up the confirmation of Federal Railroad Administrator Ron Batory in retaliation to the Trump Administration’s recalcitrance—a move for which he was widely criticized.