The new bridge: At last, a portal to progress | Editorial

Posted Jan 18, 2021

We interrupt this tawdry news cycle for a hallelujah moment:

They have finally secured the funds needed to replace that swiveling, creaking disaster from the Taft Administration known as the Portal Bridge, the 110-year-old old rail link that is neither portal nor bridge when it gets stuck in the open position – which, as 200,000 daily riders on NJ Transit know, happens often enough to make their Manhattan commute a soul-crushing experience.

The swing-style contraption spanning the Hackensack River will be replaced with a fixed, high-level, $1.8 billion span, and NJ Transit will soon solicit bids for what should be a 5-year construction. It will convert a classic choke point into a modern link that will keep the Northeast Corridor — and the regional economy —  humming faster than 1910 bridge technology had allowed.

This represents the first step in our generation’s magnum opus, the Gateway Project — which is really eight projects, the main feature being a new, two-track Hudson River tunnel.

But it isn’t hyperbolic to suggest that once the shovels pierce the ground, it could mark the rebirth of a golden age of infrastructure, a long-delayed restoration of the American foundation, with the blessing of a rail-friendly president.

“I think we’re at a turning point for multiple reasons,” said Amtrak chairman Tony Coscia, whose agency will maintain the new Portal. “First, turning points are often caused by breaking points – you get to where you have to fix something because it’s so broken that you can’t look the other way anymore. Then there’s a consensus about the value of infrastructure.

“And then there’s the view that the pandemic has created enough economic dislocation that investment is a powerful stimulus, as it has been since the days of FDR.”

The mighty Regional Plan Association agrees that this Portal piece “clears a path for more to come. When you clear the last hurdle on a project like Portal, and add optimism about a new federal agenda to a murderer’s row of great projects in our region lined up to bat, it’s fair to talk about the breaking of a logjam that’s blocked progress for years.”

Indeed, the realization of Portal is also a lesson in government, and why it’s important to elect competent people who keep the faith when they are forced to play the long game.

New Jersey’s congressional delegation deserves much of the credit for keeping Gateway alive and refusing to yield to ceaseless obstruction from the Trump Administration.

In the darkest times, Sen. Bob Menendez pushed the project as ranking member of the Senate Transit Subcommittee, and with Sen. Cory Booker and new voices in the House — such as Reps. Tom Malinowski, Mikie Sherrill, and Josh Gottheimer — Gateway never stopped being the most important infrastructure project in the country.

They worked collaboratively, built bipartisan support, and used leverage to overcome roadblocks and cull enough votes to ensure there was enough funding in the federal budget to keep the project alive.

Even with Gov. Murphy dropping $811 million on the table for the Portal piece, it was a herculean task because of the hostility from the White House.

But they had the requisite persistence. Now imagine what can be done with a cooperative executive branch.

Coscia allows himself to dream big: He envisions a more aggressive pursuit of an environmental impact study for the tunnel, a better rating from the federal funding program known as New Starts, and he anticipates the four stakeholders — New Jersey, New York, Amtrak and the Feds — to have honest dialogue about splitting costs.

“And then,” he said, “there’s no reason why we can’t see a full-funding grant agreement over the course of 2021.”

The country is facing a long-term restoration. It might as well start with the country’s most important project.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-01-18 04:25:44 -0800