Coast Guard agrees to long-term fix for Portal Bridge delays

Coast Guard agrees to long-term fix for Portal Bridge delays

By:  Ryan Hutchins


The U.S. Coast Guard has agreed to place permanent restrictions on when tall boats can pass under the Portal Bridge, a century-old rail crossing in New Jersey that has caused major delays for commuters and travelers riding on Amtrak’s busy Northeast Corridor.

The regulations, which were published in the federal register on Monday, will extend temporary rules that have limited bridge openings during rush-hour travel periods except under a narrow set of circumstances. The swing bridge, now 109 years old, can become stuck in its open position for hours, cutting off the only Amtrak and NJ Transit route between New York and New Jersey.

The Coast Guard agreed in March to institute the rules as a short-term solution after facing pressure from U.S. Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker of New Jersey. Until the rulemaking process is complete, the Coast Guard will extend the temporary restrictions, which prohibit most marine traffic on the Hackensack River from crossing under the bridge in Kearny, N.J., between 5 and 10 a.m. and 3 and 8 p.m.

Menendez, who publicized the new rule proposal on Tuesday, said he was pleased the Coast Guard had agreed to make the change permanent, but argued the only real solution is construction of a replacement span. That $1.6 billion project, known as Portal North, is stalled as it awaits federal grant approval.

“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,” Menendez said in a statement.

While the issues at the bridge have been partially alleviated by the Coast Guard restrictions and a general decline in maritime traffic, the bridge had become one of the greatest bottlenecks on the Northeast Corridor, which stretches from Washington to Boston.

Not only does the process of opening the bridge delay trains, but matters can be made far worse when the bridge becomes stuck in its outward position, necessitating an hourslong effort to manually swing the structure back into position. Such situations halt all rail travel to and from Penn Station in Manhattan. More than 450 trains, carrying some 200,000 people, use the bridge each day.

Amtrak and NJ Transit, which runs the nation’s largest state-operated commuter rail system and serves as project sponsor, have spent years seeking federal funding for the shovel-ready replacement bridge, but have been repeatedly rejected for grants.

The project is part of the larger Gateway Program, which includes the proposed $11.3 billion Hudson River rail tunnel the U.S. Department of Transportation also refuses to fund despite dire warnings the existing tunnel‘s useful life is nearly up. The projects are said to be victims of President Donald Trump’s feud with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, one the tunnel’s biggest boosters.

Under Gov. Phil Murphy, New Jersey has expanded its local commitment to the bridge project, agreeing to borrow $600 million through its own Economic Development Authority to ensure it isn’t relying on federal loans for its local commitment. In a new grant application filed in September, NJ Transit added a cushion for potential cost overruns and says it addressed other issues raised by federal transportation officials.

Murphy, like Booker, Schumer and regional transportation officials, praised the Coast Guard’s decision to publish the new rules, saying the restriction “will provide relief and confidence to commuters who cross the Portal Bridge every day.”

“Although this is no silver bullet that eliminates the need for a new Portal Bridge, this new rule is a commonsense determination that balances the economic interests of maritime activity with the daily commutes of rail passengers, and shows the progress that can be made through good faith partnerships between state and local stakeholders and the federal government,” Murphy said in a statement.