The Portal triumph does not erase the mortal transit threat | Editorial

Posted Feb 16, 2020

As 200,000 daily riders know, there are times when the Portal Bridge is neither portal nor bridge.

It is a rusty, creaky, swing-truss contraption that squats 25 feet above the Hackensack River, and when boats need to pass underneath, it becomes the vortex from hell. Sometimes it fails to close properly — this happens 15 percent of the time — and it triggers a sequence of events that can haunt your dreams.

Trains from Boston to D.C. stop and smolder. The control center at Penn Station freaks out. Jersey commuters, sacks of jangled nerves in sweaty human packages, re-evaluate the choices they’ve made with their lives. Amtrak crews literally march out to the middle of the bridge and bang the rails into a closed position with sledgehammers.

So Monday’s news that a $1.7 billion replacement bridge is now eligible for federal funding is enough to elicit hosannas up and down the Northeast Corridor, if only because this commitment represents a welcome departure from the demonstrable malevolence of the Trump Administration.

But to cast a sobering light, one must not forget a few immutable truths: First, it never would have taken this long, but for the continued obstinance in the White House, which was surmounted by a greater political will here at home. Second, this is still just one phase of a massive project that still makes no sense until we replace another century-old piece of infrastructure, the equally-decrepit Hudson rail tunnel.

Sen. Bob Menendez is absolutely right when he calls Portal funding “the most significant step forward for the Gateway Program since this Administration took office” and that it had to overcome “unprecedented political opposition.”

Unfortunately, that opposition still exists: The Federal Transit Administration did not give the same priority status to the tunnel, and given the hostility the president shows toward most things connected to New York, the necessary rating may not come anytime soon.

So getting Portal into its engineering phase is mostly a reminder to stay vigilant.

But it is also unassailable proof that vigilance works.

When everyone doubted the funding, Gov. Murphy came up with the state’s $600 million share through Economic Development Authority bonds. The House delegation — notably Reps. Tom Malinowski, Josh Gottheimer, Mikie Sherrill, and her predecessor, Rodney Frelinghuysen — kept the pressure on and never lost the faith. And leaders such as Amtrak chairman Tony Coscia helped break a hopeless political stalemate by boosting his capital pledge to $320 million and keeping the stakeholders from tearing each other apart.

Ultimately, it fell into place because the barriers from Trump and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao eventually crumbled. The environmental approvals were met, everyone brought money to the table, and it has been shovel ready for years.

Now they must relieve an even greater logjam, political or otherwise. The debate over the tunnel — another remnant from the Taft Administration — remains exasperating, because it could fail at any time.

But at least the current occupant of the White House will recognize the opposition’s argument, because it also applied to the Portal Bridge: We are either going to invest billions in preventive new construction, or billions more in disaster relief.

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