Optimism On Rail Bridge Project, But Federal Funds Needed

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Transit officials in New Jersey are praising an agreement to put $600 million toward the replacement of a century-old rail bridge, but the project still needs federal dollars to go forward.

The state approved the agreement this week for the estimated $1.5 billion Portal North bridge project over the Hackensack River. It’s a source of delays for tens of thousands of rail commuters into and out of New York when it fails to close properly after opening to allow boats to pass underneath.

In March, an early morning malfunction caused hours of delays, and another in January forced service to be suspended for an hour, disrupting service in the region. Nearly 200,000 people and 450 trains cross the bridge each day in and out of New York and to points in the northeast.

The bridge is the first phase of the Gateway project. The second phase, an estimated $13 billion tunnel into New York to augment an existing, century-old tunnel damaged in Superstorm Sandy, has been at the center of a funding dispute between local and federal officials. It awaits final federal environmental approval before design work can begin.

Pre-construction activities at the bridge began months ago, and construction could start once federal funding is secured. But the project took a hit earlier this year when federal regulators downgraded its rating, making it more difficult to get federal funding.

Board members of the Gateway Development Corporation said Friday they hope the commitment made by New Jersey will boost the project’s rating. An added benefit is that money the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had committed to the bridge construction project now will be shifted to the tunnel project, interim board chairman John Porcari said Friday.

“We’re working closely with our federal partners on any perceived deficiencies in the application,” Porcari said. “We believe we’ve addressed all those with the bridge and we’ve also strengthened the tunnel application in the process.”

Porcari didn’t say how the $600 million commitment by New Jersey would affect the project’s timeline. Board members had initially estimated construction could start in the second half of 2018.