Murphy, NJ Dems push for federal signoff on Portal Bridge rail project

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

A who’s who of New Jersey Democrats gathered at the Secaucus Junction railroad station Wednesday to press the federal government for a replacement of the Portal Bridge, an aging span in a critical location that frequently causes slowdowns for Amtrak and NJ Transit.

The bridge, just miles from Penn Station in midtown Manhattan on a busy section of track called the Northeast Corridor, was put into service 109 years ago. That’s 1910.

“Let me put that in perspective,” said Gov. Phil Murphy who was joined by Senate President Steve Sweeney and half the state’s congressional delegation. “William Howard Taft was in the White House. Woodrow Wilson was governor-elect. The New York Highlanders were still three years away from changing their name to the New York Yankees.”

“Just so you know, I know a little bit about bridges, being an iron worker. I think we got our money’s worth out of this bridge,” Sweeney said.

The state says the project is shovel ready and New Jersey will commit its full share, $600 million dollars, from state funds. But the Federal Transit Administration says it doubts the credibility of the state’s commitment.

“New Jersey is ready to get started on America’s next great infrastructure project,” Murphy said. “But we can’t do that until the Trump Administration stops its delays, removes its artificial roadblocks and lets us get to work on finally replacing the Portal Bridge.”

The so-called swing bridge, which crosses the Hackensack River in the Meadowlands, at times becomes impassable when it opens to allow maritime traffic to pass.

“Very often it doesn’t [close], and we literally have a fellow with a sledgehammer come out and knock the rail into alignment,” said Jerry Zaro, chairman of the Gateway Program Development Corp., created to oversee both the Portal Bridge replacement and Gateway, a related project calling for a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River.

“Can you imagine a bridge that carries over 450 trains a day that you have to use a sledgehammer to line it up?” said U.S. Rep. Albio Sires. “That is embarrassing not only to New Jersey, it is embarrassing to the country.”

“There is something wrong when in 2019 a guy with a hammer is responsible for keeping our rail network from coming to a halt,” said Mikie Sherill, a first-term congresswoman.

The FTA said Wednesday that New Jersey still has three requirements to meet on the bridge. It must complete all third-party agreements, for example with Amtrak; it must develop a firm and final cost and project schedule and it must it can handle cost overruns.

In the meantime, New Jersey congressional representatives say they are getting frustrated.

“It’s literally ready to go,” said Josh Gottheimer, whose district spans the northern tier of the state. “We could start building this part of the project tomorrow.”

“This bridge and the tunnel that will follow is absolutely the lifeblood of our economy,” said Rep. Tom Malinkowsky.”

New Jersey Democrats have also been pushing for federal money for the Gateway rail tunnel.

Last week the state lowered the estimated price tag on that by more than a billion dollars, but the Trump Administration is still balking at its share of the $11 billion that project would cost.