Part 4 of 6: Hey! Wanna Buy a Bridge?

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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Around 1900, sharp operators in New York City would fleece tourists by offering to sell them the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge, which still impresses and inspires New Yorkers and visitors today, was a marvel of its age and towered over everything else on the Manhattan or Brooklyn sides of the East River when it opened for service in 1883. Today, there are still people who have a bridge to sell us; two bridges, in fact. They want transit riders and taxpayers in New York and New Jersey to spend more than $3 billion to replace one bridge with two. They also say that replacing a two-track bridge with another two-track bridge will expand capacity sufficiently to qualify for a grant program established specifically for that purpose.

Like the tourists in Old New York and Old Brooklyn, we should think carefully about what we are buying with our money, because it now appears that these claims do not comport with the facts.

Portal Bridge is part of the Pennsylvania Railroad expansion into the original Penn Station New York, which opened for service in 1910—the expansion that “conquered Gotham.” The station lasted for only 53 years, but the bridge has supported local and long-distance passenger trains for more than twice that time span. It is beautiful, a marvel of its day, but it is old, and it at least needs to be rehabilitated.

Gateway’s proponents would prefer to scrap it and replace it with two bridges that would stand 53 feet above mean high water, more than doubling the height of the existing bridge, a swing span standing 23 feet above mean high water. That would allow more marine traffic on the river, even though marine traffic has declined significantly in recent years.

The original Portal Bridge Project from the 1990s (officially the “Portal Bridge Capacity Enhancement Project”) was separated from the former Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) Project, although they were presented concurrently. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie killed the ARC Project in 2010, primarily because it had gotten too expensive over the years. He also terminated it because it would not go to New York’s East Side or to Penn Station, and it would not connect with Amtrak, the result of several downgrades during that period. He expressed those reasons, in addition to the high cost, but that part of the story was not widely reported at the time. Still, the legacy of separating the Portal Bridge Project from the ARC Project lives on through some of the engineering from the original bridge project.

It might have been a good idea to replace a single two-track bridge with a three-track bridge to add more capacity, and such a plan was discussed and approved as the Preferred Alternative in the original Portal Bridge Capacity Enhancement Project EIS Record of Decision (ROD) issued by the Federal Railroad Administration in December 2008: “This alternative, discussed below as the preferred alternative, includes a three-track fixed northern bridge, a two-track movable southern bridge built on a new southern alignment, and a duck-under structure for the grade separation. This alternative would have a capital cost of $1.344 billion in 2008 dollars [for both bridges] and take 66 months to complete.” (https://www.njtransit.com/AdminTemp/Portal_Bridge_FTA_ROD_with_Attachments.pdf (2008) at 2).

 

Portal North Bridge rendering.

In comparison, Amtrak spokesperson Craig Schulz told Railway Age on March 25, 2019 that the cost of the proposed Portal North Bridge alone is now estimated at $1.6 billion and had not changed. He did not mention a time frame during which said lack of change occurred. In May 2010, the south bridge was changed to become a fixed bridge. In January 2011, the north bridge was reduced from three to two tracks. The FRA approved the original ROD and changes, while the FTA concurred in the result and apparently assumed jurisdiction over the application in 2017.

It also might have been a good idea to keep and rehabilitate the original bridge while also building an additional new bridge, to avoid having to build two new spans, a plan that was discussed only among advocates. Amtrak and Gateway officials were never interested in either of those ideas. Instead they always thought the answer was to build two new bridges to replace the old one.

The problem with Portal Bridge has been reliability. Marine traffic has priority over rail traffic. At least in theory, the bridge could open at any time for a boat, which could seriously disrupt rail traffic. It could even happen at commuting time, delaying thousands of riders on the Northeast Corridor during morning and evening peak periods. That does not happen very often these days, because the Coast Guard, which has authority over such matters, has given the railroad priority during peak commuting hours on weekdays.

In the previous article in this series, we reported that circumstances surrounding the often-expressed need to build new tunnels before repairing the old ones may have changed considerably. It appears that the same is true for Portal Bridge. Many in the region used to hear stories about how Portal Bridge was stuck in the “open” position, so trains could not get through. That seldom happens anymore, primarily because of a huge reduction in river traffic under it. For a number of years, the largest number of bridge openings was attributed to sludge barges that carried sewage away from an upriver treatment plant. Since 2016, its management has switched to trucking the sludge out of the plant, so there are now fewer barges forcing the bridge to open (noted in Bridge of Lies: Amtrak’s dumb Portal Bridge plan is a weak link in overblown Gateway, an editorial in the New York Daily News from June 18, 2018, found at: https://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/ny-edit-portal-bridge-20180615-story.html).

There are still a few occasions when the bridge opens for river traffic, but Joseph M. Clift, an advocate who was previously Planning Director for the Long Island Rail Road, notes that that the bridge now opens infrequently. A few boats still pass through it and the machinery must be operated for testing and maintenance, actually more often than for boats to pass. There is no regular commercial maritime traffic anymore, and the bridge is now only opened occasionally. According to Clift, “The bridge rarely opens for maritime traffic—14 times in 2017; 15 in 2018 through Oct. 31. This averages out to one round trip for a boat every six weeks.” Clift also noted that some of the openings in 2018 were connected to early work on the Portal North Bridge project.

The 2010 approval for the south bridge to change from movable to fixed was approved for the purpose of benefiting boats plying the river, according to the FRA Impact Summary Table with the evaluation of the requested change: “The higher-level fixed Southern Bridge would require Amtrak and NJ Transit trains to travel on a steeper grade. The design change would benefit marine traffic, as it would entirely eliminate the need for bridge openings” (Id. at 9).

It appears that, with the very few openings for boats that are required today, it would not be cost-effective or likely even necessary to build any new fixed bridges at such high elevations above the water. Lately, the Coast Guard has waived the rules, giving trains priority over river traffic during peak commuting hours. If that policy becomes permanent, then the existing Portal Bridge would constitute the operative equivalent of a fixed bridge during the time when delays caused by bridge openings would cause the most disruption to the rail schedule. With appropriate cooperation from the Coast Guard, which should be feasible because there is so little river traffic today, it may not be necessary to build the expensive and environmentally questionable approaches that a high-level fixed bridge requires.

Portal Bridge when closed is 23 feet above mean high tide. It still has to open for taller boats, but lower-clearance boats can go under it, especially when the tide is out. There is also a long window for opening the bridge in the middle of the night. The last NJ Transit train to Trenton leaves New York at 1:22 AM, and the next train is Amtrak #67, which leaves at 3:25 AM. This leaves a window of more than two hours. There is one eastbound train due over the bridge at 2:15 AM, but it is the last train of the night and would not have many riders who would be inconvenienced by a delay. Its only connection to other transit is to the New York subways, which run all night, and LIRR trains on a few lines around 3:00 AM.

The proposed Portal North replacement would be a fixed bridge, sitting 53 feet of vertical clearance above high water. Those 30 extra feet make a huge difference, especially considering that the bridge is located in the New Jersey Meadowlands, an environmentally sensitive wetlands area. To acccomodate a 1.5% grade would require building 2,000 feet of approach on each side of the bridge. Much of that additional approach would have to be elevated on piers, which would add to construction costs, especially in sensitive terrain. The additional structure would run about one mile.

Could Amtrak rehabilitate the existing Portal Bridge or replace it with a similar bridge, at a large cost savings? The answer is “Yes” to both questions. Amtrak’s failure to rehabilitate Portal at some time in the past 20 years at a cost of $30-$40 million (as NJ Transit has done with all its many movable bridges during that time period) has caused today’s reliability problems. If Amtrak had done as NJ Transit, nobody would be complaining about Portal not closing properly and delaying thousands of riders. To say the least, blaming a bridge for not working when it has not been properly maintained is rather disingenuous of Amtrak management. The Coast Guard is already giving rail traffic priority during peak commuting hours, so there is no danger of Portal Bridge opening and not easily closing again, as long as it is not opened at the wrong time.

One option would be to rehabilitate Portal now, and use it alongside a new two-track bridge. Clift offered an alternative suggestion: “Given the inherent difficulties with all swing-type movable bridges that must move on two axis to open, replacing Portal with a modern movable bridge may be the best solution for the long term. Building a modern movable two-track bridge right next to Portal, then shifting rail traffic to it, would allow very cost-effective replacement of Portal with a modern two-track movable bridge that re-uses existing approaches and piers.”

Amtrak did that with “Old Nan,” a bridge over the Niantic River in Connecticut, and service was disrupted for only one weekend. It was done in 2013 at a cost of $154 million. Clift says: “If a similar bridge can be built next to Portal and Portal can then be replaced with another similar bridge, four tracks along the Hackensack River can be built, without having to build long approaches in the Meadowlands, resulting in cost savings and reduced damage to the environment.”

Would merely rehabilitating or replacing the existing Portal Bridge provide sufficient capacity for all the trains that are expected to run on the NEC in the future? If the bridge seldom opens at any time, and never opens during peak commuting hours, maybe. Even if not, it is less expensive and healthier for the environment to build only one new bridge in the Meadowlands, not two. If a new bridge with two active tracks provides most of the service, the original bridge would only be needed during peak-commuting hours or in the event of a service outage on another track.

It is also unclear whether the federal government would even be allowed to give a grant for Portal North. The current application is a Core Capacity Project Development (CCPD) grant, a type of Capital Investment Grant (CIG) under Section 5309, the same statute that authorizes New Starts and Small Starts grants. To qualify for a Core Capacity grant, an applicant must demonstrate that the proposed project would increase peak-hour capacity (seats on commuter railroads) by at least 10% on the first day of operation.

In the case of Portal North, that is now impossible. As Clift explained: “Some may claim politics are the reason the feds are holding up funding for the Portal North Bridge project, but here’s today’s reality: Portal North Bridge does not qualify for the roughly $800 million FTA Core Capacity grant it needs to receive to be fully funded, because it fails to achieve the legally required 10% increase in peak hour seats into New York Penn. Seating increases claimed as only possible after the new bridge is in operation have already been achieved by NJT having replaced [single-level] Comet cars with higher-capacity MultiLevel cars on six peak-hour trains, thereby dropping the claimed capacity increase due to Portal North Bridge to below 10%. NJT has managed its way out of its peak-period capacity problem, but in so doing, it has completely disqualified Portal North from a Core Capacity grant.”

As ridership grew and demand for more train seats grew with it, NJT managers changed the equipment on some trains that go to Penn Station at the busiest time of the morning. By some time before June 2018, they were no longer using single-level cars, and had switched to newly acquired Bombardier MultiLevel cars, which hold 21 more riders per car. That change, by itself, increased seating capacity into Penn Station by 4.4% and created a legal problem for the Gateway people. By assigning equipment judiciously, NJT abated some of its capacity constraints.

The original application filed by Gateway in September 2016, using a 2015 baseline, claimed that Portal North Bridge would add 11.6% more seats into New York Penn Station during the busiest part of the commuting peak, which would more than meet the required 10% threshold. The FTA document that rated the project in November 2017 said: “The new bridge is planned to provide enough vertical clearance to accommodate current and forecast maritime traffic and allow trains to operate at higher speeds. The proposed project also includes the purchase of 25 multilevel commuter railcars for NJT to expand its service in the corridor. The project is estimated to expand commuter rail capacity in the corridor by 10%, which meets the requirement in law for Core Capacity projects.” https://www.transit.dot.gov/sites/fta.dot.gov/files/docs/funding/grant-programs/capital-investments/130161/nj-hudson-county-portal-north-bridge-profile.pdf9 at 2). The project was selected as the Locally-Preferred Alternative in 2016, and the FTA reissued a slightly revised version of the FRA ROD in July 2017.

In its latest ratings from November 2018 and reported on March 15, 2019, the FTA assigned the project a rating of “medium-low” in terms of both Overall Project Rating and Local Financial Commitment Rating—a failing grade in the fierce competition for grants, equivalent to a grade of D, when the lowest passing grade is a C. The project’s financial picture had gotten worse, and there is not enough money in the national pot to fund projects that only earn a “medium-low” rating.

An FTA spokesperson told Railway Age: “The Portal North Bridge project sponsor has not completed the steps required in law and regulation to receive a construction grant award under the FTA Capital Investment Grants (CIG) program. The project remains ineligible to advance from the first phase to the second phase of the CIG program because it has received a ‘medium-low’ rating from the professional career staff at FTA.”

The FTA message went on to explain what must be done: “Some of the more notable actions remaining include:

  • New Jersey Transit needs to complete a multi-step process to update state financial programming documents (Transportation Capital Program and the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program) to commit the funds necessary to repay the proposed issuance of $600 million in state bonds.
  • New Jersey Transit must develop a firm and final cost, scope and schedule.
  • New Jersey Transit must complete all critical third-party agreements.”

It also appears that the project is in serious trouble because the proposed bridge would not deliver the required capacity improvement, either. NJT had upgraded most of its equipment to MultiLevels by 2018, which increased peak-hour seats into New York Penn Station by 4.4%, so any remaining improvement due to Portal North alone would be limited to 6.9%, which does not meet the federal standard for a minimum increase of 10%. That is understandable, since Gateway managers plan to replace a two-track bridge with another two-track bridge, which raises the question of how they could even get almost a 7% increase in capacity without adding even one more track. Clift put it more strongly: “It should be obvious that replacing a two-track movable bridge that doesn’t have to open during peak periods with a two-track fixed bridge will not increase peak-hour seats into NYP by even 1%, must less 10%.”

The problem is that the original application with single-level train consists was still before the FTA, even though circumstances had changed with the change in equipment on six trains from single-level to multi-level cars. Clift told this writer: “NJT has maintained the [appearance] of a 10% capacity gain due to the proposed Portal North Bridge by continuing to submit now obviously incorrect baseline information to the FTA that lists the six now MultiLevel-equipped trains as still Comet-equipped, having done so as recently as last September. Due diligence by the FTA should unearth the [inaccuracy] of NJT’s submission.”

Expanding on Clift’s argument, Gateway officials knew or should have known that using the 2015 baseline that said single-level equipment was still in use for claiming capacity improvement was wrong, because the information from that time was no longer valid when the application was filed. Using an updated baseline would have been correct, but also would have killed the application, because the new bridge could not have delivered enough additional capacity to meet the 10% standard. So they used, and continue to stand by, an outdated baseline that they knew or should have known was fictitious.

As recently as March 10, 2019, NJT Executive Director Kevin Corbett claimed that the Portal North Project would increase capacity by more than 11%;—a claim that is not predicated in facts, based upon NJT’s listing of train consists. Not only could intentional use of an incorrect baseline constitute grounds for the application to be denied, but the consequences under New Jersey law could be even more severe. To make matters worse, two Gateway Program Development Corp. Board members are New Jersey attorneys: Jerry Zaro and Anthony Coscia (who is also Chair of the Amtrak Board). New Jersey attorneys are expected to know the law and the legal status of what they say and do.

When I asked him about the purported increase in capacity from the proposed Portal North bridge, Amtrak spokesperson Craig Schulz responded: “NJ Transit can explain.” NJ Transit spokesperson Nancy Snyder sent this statement: “The data used for the Core [Capacity] Application for Portal Bridge North application was examined, verified and approved by the FTA as part of the application process. Train consists and operating plans are subject to change to reflect and adapt to current operating conditions at any given time, such as to reflect fall and spring schedule changes, for example, to account for maintenance-related track outages that may alter train schedules. NJT followed FTA guidance in the submission, and FTA accepted NJT’s planning documentation as meeting the requirements.”

I asked the FTA about an applicant’s continuing duty to provide up-to-date information about the circumstances that pertain to a grant application, and received the following statement, presented as “background”: “The law requires projects seeking Capital Investment Grants (CIG) funding to complete a multi-phase, multi-year process outlined in federal law. CIG construction grants cannot be awarded until a project sponsor has completed all the steps in law; obtained commitments of all non-CIG funding; completed all critical third-party agreements; developed a firm and reliable cost, scope and schedule; and satisfactorily demonstrated the technical capacity to undertake the project. The current ‘medium-low’ rating for the Portal North Bridge project is based on FTA’s evaluation of information submitted by NJ Transit in the Fall of 2018. As a proposed project proceeds through the phases of the CIG process, information concerning costs, benefits, financial plans and impacts is refined, and the project rating may be reassessed to reflect new information provided by the project sponsor. FTA does not sign a construction grant agreement committing CIG funds until after the project sponsor has demonstrated that its project meets all CIG program requirements and is otherwise ready for such an agreement as discussed above.”

The FTA spokesperson concluded: “ Please contact NJ Transit, the Portal North Bridge project sponsor, for information regarding how its current railcar equipment usage may affect its CIG Core Capacity project.”

I contacted NJ Transit as the FTA recommended and again received the statement previously quoted in its entirety, with no changes.

At this writing, it appears that the FTA remains firm in its decision that NJ Transit has not met the standards to qualify for the grant that it has requested for the Portal North project. It appears to this writer that only a more cost-effective project could qualify for a grant from the FTA. That means the sort of low-cost project that Clift and other advocates have been recommending.

Clift summarized his objections to the current Portal North Bridge project as follows: “‘$1.6 billion in Other People’s Money must be spent on PNB now’ is equivalent to saying, ‘Mom and Dad, my Ford is running really rough and hard to start, so you absolutely have to buy me a brand new Ferrari to drive in city traffic. And oh, by the way, I only use my car occasionally, and I haven’t had it tuned up or the battery replaced in the past five years.’”

At a Gateway Program Development Corp. Board meeting on March 26, 2018, Gateway Trustee and Amtrak Board Chair Anthony Coscia reported that Portal Bridge had been open for an extended period earlier that morning, which disrupted many commutes into New York City. He reported that the bridge was opened at 5:00 AM for inspection (not for a boat). He said the opening had been planned for earlier that morning, but had been delayed by work trains carrying materials for the ongoing switch renewal program at Penn Station New York.

Clift criticized Amtrak, saying: “The apparent indifference of Amtrak to its customers is manifest in this extremely poor decision to open the bridge for inspection at about the time when the first inbound trains from New Jersey were scheduled to cross over it. Failing that, it is difficult to imagine any operational reason for opening the bridge at that hour, unless the intention was to create an incident that inconvenienced commuters, thereby giving Gateway officials an excuse to blame Portal Bridge for those commuters’ difficulties and call again for the bridge to be demolished and replaced at the cost of $1.6 billion.”

Current estimates for the cost of both the Portal North and Portal South high-level fixed bridges totals $3.4 billion. If two two-track low-level movable bridges as described previously can be substituted for one of those planned bridges, it would go a long way toward producing the kind of savings that could render the cost of the entire Gateway program (or, at least the necessary parts of it, and not the unnecessary parts) less onerous than current estimates demonstrate. It could even help reduce the overall cost, so local sources could raise slightly more than 50% of the total, and federal sources could be used for the rest.

There is another component of Gateway that may not be needed at all. It is the proposed Penn South station, which would force most NJ Transit trains into exile there, and out of the main station that both NJ Transit and Amtrak now use. It may not even require new and expensive construction to eliminate that particular undesirable feature from the Gateway program. Improving the operation, which would cost very little, may be enough. I will examine Penn South, the inconvenience that it would cause many riders, and the prospects for eliminating it, in Part 5 of this series.

Categories: Commuter/Regional, High Performance, Intercity, Passenger Tags: , , ,