NJ Tweaks Portal Bridge Financing Plan in Effort to Win Federal $$$

Having already doubled what they said they would spend, state officials are now hoping to secure elusive funding from the Trump administration for the long-delayed replacement of the Portal Bridge in North Jersey by tweaking the financial plan for the critical rail project.

The latest application for matching funds for the proposed bridge replacement was submitted earlier this month by New Jersey Transit, the project’s official sponsor. It dedicates $45 million of the state’s $600 million funding commitment to cover potential cost overruns, agency officials said.

In addition, Amtrak, the owner of the 109-year-old Hackensack River crossing, is committing another $55 million from passenger revenues, according to the new finance plan. That money is in addition to $182 million Amtrak had already pledged for the bridge and other projects in the state.

While those modest changes represent just a small percentage of the project’s $1.6 billion overall cost estimate, it’s the latest attempt by NJ Transit to address concerns that federal transportation officials have raised in their prior rejections of the state’s funding applications. They include a contention that insufficient funds had been set aside by the state to cover cost overruns in earlier requests.

More than a year ago, state officials committed to doubling New Jersey’s $300-million original funding pledge for the project, but did not receive a signoff from Washington.

The drafting of the revised finance plan comes as Gov. Phil Murphy and other elected officials have continued to air concerns about the bridge’s deteriorating condition, and the threat that a breakdown poses to the state and national economies.

“We can get to work replacing this balky old bridge the moment the Trump administration steps up with the green light to do so,” Murphy said during a recent news conference held at the nearby Secaucus Junction train station.

A critical connection point

Opened in 1910 for the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Portal Bridge is used by both Amtrak and NJ Transit, carrying more than 150,000 passengers in each direction on daily trips to and from Penn Station in New York City.

Federal officials have frequently offered assurances that the bridge remains safe, but it is often a source of major delays since the span sits close enough to the river that it must be swung open to allow for maritime traffic to pass. While officials have worked in recent years to reduce the frequency of openings, the bridge is still prone to mechanical problems that can stymie travel all along the Northeast Corridor, the rail connection running between Washington, D.C. and Boston, a region that generates an estimated 20 percent of the nation’s total gross-domestic product.

The $1.6 billion bridge replacement calls for the construction of “Portal North,” a high-level, fixed-span bridge that would elevate the two-track crossing more than 50-feet above the river, obviating the need for it to open.

Other rail infrastructure near the bridge would also be modernized as part of the project to improve reliability and allow trains to cross the span at higher speeds — upgrades that would likely thrill commuters who frequently deal with delays caused by the existing infrastructure.

Last year, Murphy and other state officials announced the state was preparing to float a $600 million bond issue to help cover the local share of the bridge replacement. That move to significantly bump up the state’s prior funding commitment came after the Trump administration had questioned at the time whether New Jersey had enough “skin in the game.”

The latest application also seeks $811 million in funding from the federal government.

Addressing Washington’s concerns

In addition to cost overruns, the latest plan also responds to concerns raised by federal transportation officials that specific sources of revenue weren’t clearly identified.

“We are confident NJ Transit has made our application even stronger by addressing the issues raised by the federal government,” NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett said in a statement this month.

“We look forward to a prompt review that will improve the project rating and move us closer to a Full Funding Grant Agreement and the start of major construction,” Corbett said.

It’s unclear when the Trump administration will decide, and there has also been speculation that the decision could be tied to hardball politics since the region’s elected officials are among the loudest critics of the Republican president.

That has led some to suggest that NJ Transit, as the project’s sponsor, should simply move ahead with construction even without getting an official sign-off from the federal government. But officials said that would likely disqualify the state from getting a federal reimbursement and only raise the cost of the project for New Jersey taxpayers.

‘Shovel-ready’ but for financing

Murphy and other top elected officials who spoke at the recent news conference at Secaucus Junction stressed the need for more urgency in the face of the ongoing funding delay. In fact, the event marked the second time in the last two years that Murphy and other officials held a public event to bring more attention to the stalled bridge replacement.

“We all know it is simply a matter of time before the Northeast Corridor grinds to a halt because a cranky Portal Bridge got stuck open again,” Murphy said. “We have to act now.”

The project has all necessary permits and is considered “shovel-ready.” Construction is expected to take at least five years to complete.

“It’s time to go forward,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester). “It’s too important to the economy of this country to let this bridge fail.”

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