A Bridge Only Sledgehammers Can Fix Will No Longer Sabotage Rush Hour



Oct. 16, 2019

The Portal Bridge in New Jersey is over 100 years old. When it fails to close, workers with sledgehammers have to bang it back into place.


It is a fairly ordinary bridge, not too long and not very tall. But the Portal Bridge’s modest profile obscures its vital role: It is a main rail link between New York City and most of the rest of the country.

And for decades, the balky old bridge in New Jersey, a few miles west of Manhattan, has terrorized commuters. Built early last century, it pivots at its center to allow boats to pass up and down the Hackensack River.

The disruption should last only about 15 minutes. But the 109-year-old bridge is prone to getting stuck in the open position, and when that happens crews have to be summoned to bang on it with sledgehammers.

Now, however, train riders will finally get some relief and not have to worry that the old bridge will ruin their rush-hour commutes.

After openings of the Portal Bridge brought rail traffic to a prolonged halt twice in one day last year, elected officials pleaded with the United States Coast Guard to approve a ban on openings during morning and afternoon rush hours.

At the behest of New Jersey’s senators, Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, and its governor, Philip D. Murphy — all Democrats — temporary restrictions took effect in mid-March.

The Coast Guard has extended the ban until January and plans to make it permanent next year, said Christopher J. Bisignano, a Coast Guard commander in New York City.

The Coast Guard proposed a rule change this week that would keep the bridge from opening for boats on weekdays from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.

That decision is good news for commuters like Oscar Barillas, who rides New Jersey Transit trains daily to get to Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan from Elizabeth, N.J.

Mr. Barillas said he had sat through his share of delays caused by Portal Bridge openings. “Usually when that happens, it takes like 30 to 45 minutes because everything stops,” he said.

Of course, for Mr. Barillas and many commuters who rely on New Jersey Transit, the Portal Bridge has been a lesser evil.

This summer, he said, there seemed to be delays during the evening rush nearly every day that were blamed on either mechanical problems or a shortage of engineers to drive the trains.

“It’s a good idea not to mess with that bridge,” Mr. Barillas said. But, he added, “that’s not going to solve this mess.”

Still, the ultimate fix, a new bridge, is still a ways away.

Commuters will have to depend on the old Portal for at least five more years because a plan to replace it is mired in a political standoff in Washington. The new bridge, which would be high enough that boats could pass under it, has an estimated cost of $1.6 billion.

Amtrak, the national railroad that owns the bridge, and its partners in the project are asking the federal Department of Transportation to cover half of the cost. New Jersey has already committed to pay $600 million, and state officials say that the only obstacle to starting construction is the Trump administration’s resistance.

In the 2020 federal budget, the administration cut funding for the bridge to $325 million, a move that Senator Chuck Schumer of New York likened to holding the project for “political ransom.”

At a news conference in August, Mr. Murphy, the New Jersey governor, said, “Our administration has asked the Federal Transit Administration to allow us to begin work, but all we’ve gotten in return is radio silence.”

The two-track bridge would be the first phase of a massive project to add a pair of rail tunnels under the Hudson River to supplement the existing tubes, which are more than 100 years old.

That project, which is known as Gateway and would cost as much as $30 billion, had been deemed one of the most critical infrastructure projects in the country by the administration of former President Barack Obama.

But for the last few years, Gateway has been the subject of a running feud between the Trump administration and Democratic officials from New York and New Jersey.

After the administration downgraded the project to “medium-low” priority this year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York called the move “one of the most egregious cases of governmental recklessness and malpractice.”

Despite Amtrak’s ownership of the existing tunnels and the Portal Bridge, federal officials have repeatedly described Gateway as a local project that should be funded locally.

Local officials counter that an extended disruption of rail service between New York City and New Jersey would have national implications because it would cripple the economy of the largest metropolitan area in the country.

The Portal is one of the busiest rail bridges in the country. More than 450 trains carrying about 200,000 passengers cross it every weekday on the way to and from Penn Station in Manhattan.

With no agreement in sight on federal funding of any part of Gateway, keeping the Portal Bridge closed will eliminate one potential cause of chaos for commuters.

“While a permanent rush-hour ban will alleviate pressure on the Portal Bridge and restore some reliability to the system, riders will never truly have peace of mind and faith in our rail system until the century-old, oft-malfunctioning span is replaced and a new Hudson rail tunnel built,” Mr. Menendez said. “We are sitting on a transportation ticking time bomb and must move forward on Gateway without further delay.”

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