For 80,000 Commuters, One Nemesis: A 108-Year-Old Bridge

By Patrick McGeehan


Dec. 11, 2018

The Portal Bridge, which crosses the Hackensack River in New Jersey, carries Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains and has a tendency to get stuck after it opens to let boats pass.


It could be the plot of a Stephen King novel: A train full of commuters hurtling toward New York City in the pre-dawn dark comes to a screeching halt at Little Snake Hill in New Jersey.

The passengers steel themselves against the collective fear that the bridge their train is poised to cross will swing open to allow an approaching boat to pass.

But it’s too late. The 108-year-old Portal Bridge slowly pivots over the Hackensack River as thousands of commuters say a memorial prayer for whatever plans they had for the day.

In the horror stories that train riders in the New York area share, there is no more menacing boogeyman than the Portal Bridge. The movable swing-span bridge has a nasty habit of failing to close properly after opening to let a boat pass, blocking all train traffic between New York City and most points to the west and south.

Those repeated disruptions of travel in the metropolitan area spurred Amtrak officials to plead on Tuesday with the Coast Guard for severe restrictions on the bridge’s movement. Amtrak, which owns and operates the bridge, asked for permission to keep it closed during the four busiest commuting hours each weekday morning and evening, and to open it only after a full day’s notice.

The requests came about five weeks after elected officials from New Jersey made a similar appeal to the Coast Guard. That request — from Gov. Philip D. Murphy and Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker — was prompted by two problems with the Portal Bridge on Oct. 30.

On that day, the bridge got stuck after opening in the morning and then jammed again in the afternoon, an Amtrak spokesman said. In all, the bridge was unavailable to trains for nearly two hours between 9:50 a.m. and 5 p.m. that day, he said.

The afternoon disruption alone delayed 16 Amtrak trains and 148 New Jersey Transit trains that carried about 80,000 passengers, an Amtrak official, Paul DelSignore, said in a letter to Chris Bisignano, a Coast Guard commander in New York City. Mr. DelSignore said that the “mechanical issue with the closing of the bridge” illustrated “the cascading impacts these types of openings have on rail transportation.”

The bridge is so low that it has to open for most boats, even pleasure craft and tugboats pushing barges. As recently as 2016, it opened as frequently as 20 times a month, often to make way for barges loaded with sewage sludge.

The Coast Guard granted Amtrak restrictions on the bridge’s movements during the periods of heaviest train traffic, requiring an hour’s notice for an opening during the morning and evening rushes. With those restrictions in place, boat traffic on the Hackensack declined sharply. Amtrak said it had opened the Portal Bridge only 15 times this year. (Little Snake Hill, by the way, refers to the historical name of the place in Secaucus where the bridge is.)

Still, Amtrak and the elected officials argued that the restrictions contained enough “loopholes” to pose trouble for the transportation network. They asked that the periods during which no openings are allowed start an hour earlier, to run from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.

In an interview, Commander Bisignano said that the extended hours of restrictions might be acceptable “to the marine community,” but he was not sure about the request for 24 hours’ notice.

“That’s a rarity,” he said. “That kind of advance notice would be more for a bridge that only opens maybe once or twice a year.”

He said the Coast Guard would gather responses from mariners who use the river and decide whether to propose a rule change for the Portal Bridge. The outcome, he said, could range from acceptance to a “flat denial,” depending on the responses.

Either way, Commander Bisignano pointed out, the matter should become moot within several years because preliminary work has begun on a replacement for the Portal Bridge that would be tall enough for boats to pass under it.

In their letter to the commandant of the United States Coast Guard last month, Mr. Murphy and the senators explained that the replacement bridge had been designed and permitted. But they said that the Trump administration had “needlessly stalled” the project by withholding more than $250 million of federal rail funding for it. “We write to request that the Coast Guard work with us to explore short-term solutions to mitigate this ongoing commuter crisis,” the letter stated.

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