‘Momentous day’ for NJ Transit commuters with $1.56B contract to replace Portal Bridge

Published: Oct. 12, 2021

The cranky Portal rail bridge over the Hackensack River in Kearny, infamous for getting stuck and delaying tens of thousands of commuters, will finally be replaced after NJ Transit’s board approved a $1.559 billion contract Tuesday to build a new bridge.

The pinch-me, I’m-dreaming moment for commuters who thought it would never happen, came with a unanimous 8-0 vote by NJ Transits Board of Directors to award the contract to build a new Portal North Bridge to Skanska Traylor PNB JV, the lowest of two bidders on the project.

The bridge is part of the larger, more ambitious Gateway Project, centered around building two new rail tunnels under the Hudson River and rehabilitating the existing 110-year-old tunnels.

Technically, commuters have waited almost a dozen years for this moment. A new Portal Bridge was supposed to be part of the Access to the Region’s Core tunnel project canceled by Gov. Chris Christie in October 2010.

“As long time advocates, we are thrilled to see the Port North Bridge contract award,” said Zoe Baldwin, Regional Plan Association New Jersey director. “It will greatly improve reliability for riders on NJ Transit and the entire Northeast Corridor Line. As a rider and an advocate, this is a momentous day.”

Commuters could start to see construction work start in a matter of months, said Kevin Corbett, NJ Transit CEO and a Morris &Essex line commuter for 30 years. This is the largest project in NJ Transit’s history, he said.

“Any one who’s a commuter knows, very painfully over the years, what (replacing) Portal means,” he said. “You’d hear a delay announcement (due to Portal) and your heart sinks.”

The new span will be built next to the old bridge and the first track is scheduled to be open in November 2025 and the last track could be put in service in July 2026 with full completion in 2027. Portal is considered one of the busiest railroad bridges in the western hemisphere, used by up to 200,000 passengers a day.

U.S Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-7th Dist. urged the contractor to accelerate the schedule. While the project is scheduled to more than five years to complete, the contract has incentives for early completion.

“This is the beginning of something that New Jersey residents have been waiting for and I will be pushing you guys to accelerate the schedule,” he said. “I hope you will do better than the 2027 completion date. Every day we wait is a day too long.”

The new bridge will be 25 feet higher over the water to accommodate the few large vessels that use the Hackensack River in that area. Because the new bridge allows trains to travel at 90 mph, 30 mph faster than the current 60 mph, NJ transit officials anticipate the new bridge will add 14.4% more passenger capacity during the peak rush hours.

One transit advocate, however, continued to criticize the plan as flawed.

“This project adds zero capacity. There have been no delays for three years because bridge has been closed during rush hours,” said Joe Clift, a former Long Island Rail Road planning director and transit advocate. Clift argued in the past that a more cost effective solution would have been building one, three-track bridge and rehabbing the old bridge.

Clift has maintained that passenger capacity to and from New York was increased by use of multilevel passenger cars during the previous decade and that a new bridge will provide no gains.

Capacity gains would come from running trains 30 mph faster speed over the new bridge which increases the limit from 60 to 90 mph, Corbett said.

“The Federal Transit Administration would not have given us a grant if it did not increase capacity as we said it would,” he said.

The old bridge was a mechanical anachronism left over from the early 20th Century. Frequently, the bridge wouldn’t close properly, requiring workers to bang miter rails in place with a sledgehammer to lock the bridge in the closed position. When that happened, tens of thousands of passengers on NJ Transit and Amtrak would be delayed.

Some relief came when U.S. Senator Robert Menendez worked with the U.S. Coast Guard to prohibit opening the bridge during rush hours.

Menendez, U.S. Senator Cory Booker and the state congressional delegation were instrumental in keeping funding for Portal Bridge and Gateway alive when the Trump administration tried to strip it from the federal budget and lowered Portal and Gateway Tunnel project rankings, making it harder to qualify for grants.

“This was not an easy fight, we didn’t have a friendly administration to Gateway in Washington in the last four years,” Malinowski said to the board. “I was proud to play my part and kept the USDOT accountable when they were slow rolling the project. I’m overjoyed the contract was awarded.”

The Murphy administration increased the state’s funding share of Portal Bridge to $600 million in June 2019 and demonstrated that project costs had been cut. President Donald Trump announced in June 2020 that he would approve the project after dining at his Bedminster golf club with Murphy.

A full funding agreement for a $766.5 million grant was entered into with the Federal Transit Administration on Jan. 14. Besides the transit funds, the deal calls for Federal Highway Administration to pay $57.1 million, New Jersey $811 million and Amtrak $261.5 million.

U.S Rep. Donald Payne Jr., D-10th Dist., said he plans to monitor the project to ensure that minority and women-owned businesses and contractors play a significant role in building the massive project.

“I will be watching this contract closely during its life. I am a strong supporter of minority-owned businesses and participation in government contracts has been discriminatory in the past,” Payne said. “As chairman of the House rail subcommittee, I won’t tolerate discriminatory behavior and will exercise oversight.”

Skanska’s proposal includes 15 subcontracts, totaling $70 million with minority and woman owned businesses, representing 5.02% of the project, according to the contract.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-10-13 03:17:26 -0700