The push to replace a century-old rail bridge in the Jersey Meadowlands that regularly gets stuck and snarls train traffic leading to New York has received a long-sought boost from Washington.

But tempering the celebration is the continued inaction by the administration of President Donald Trump on a related and bigger item — the planned replacement of the aging trans-Hudson rail tunnel that New Jersey Transit uses to shuttle commuters into New York on a daily basis.

That tunnel is also more than a century old, and problems stemming from its deterioration frequently hamper train traffic between the two states, as well as along the entire Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C and Boston.

In addition, a broader federal budget plan that Trump unveiled earlier this week is facing criticism from officials in New Jersey, over proposed cuts in social-service programs, Medicaid and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Still, Washington’s upgrading this week of its priority rating for the proposed $1.7 billion replacement of the Portal Bridge, which spans the Hackensack River near Secaucus Junction, is drawing wide praise from across the political spectrum, including from Gov. Phil Murphy, who has personally lobbied for the federal funding.

Kevin Corbett, NJ Transit’s president and chief executive officer, praised the advocacy and support from Murphy, as well as members of the state’s congressional delegation, during an interview with NJ Spotlight on Tuesday.

“That’s much appreciated,” said Corbett, who also credited cooperation between his agency and officials from Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration. 

“There’s a lot of people who deserve a lot of credit,” he said.

Got a sledgehammer?

Opened in 1910 for what was then the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Portal Bridge is used by both Amtrak and NJ Transit, and handles as many as 200,000 passenger trips each day.

Federal officials have frequently offered assurances that the bridge remains safe, but it is often a source of major delays since the span sits low on the river and must be swung open so maritime traffic can pass. It is also prone to getting stuck in the “open” position, a predicament that often requires the use of sledgehammers to resolve.

The proposed replacement is “Portal North,” a fixed-span bridge that would elevate the two-track crossing more than 50 feet above the river, obviating the need for it to open. Federal and state officials have estimated the replacement would also increase capacity by 10% and allow trains to cross the river faster and more reliably. In addition, when there are problems inside the trans-Hudson tunnel, passengers can reach Secaucus Junction, where they can transfer to other lines with access to New York City, including Hoboken.

The bridge project has long suffered from funding issues, and Murphy, a first-term Democrat, announced in 2018 that Trenton was now prepared to float a $600 million bond issue to help cover the local share of the work. That move, which doubled the state’s prior commitment, came after the Trump administration had questioned whether New Jersey had enough “skin in the game.”

A new funding application submitted in September 2019 also tweaked other aspects of the project’s financing, setting the stage for an upgraded priority rating that was granted by the federal Department of Transportation this week. 

Construction is expected to take five years, so officials are now anxiously looking toward finalizing the funding agreement and launching an engineering phase, which could also take several months to complete.

“I’m optimistic that it will move expeditiously,” Corbett said during the interview.

Massive delays in tunnel last week

At the same time, the Trump administration has again declined to elevate its prioritizing of the financing plan for the bigger and arguably more important replacement of the North River Tunnel, which serves the same group of New York-bound Amtrak and NJ Transit commuters who cross the Portal Bridge on a daily basis.

Also owned by the federal government, the 109-year-old tunnel was heavily damaged during Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and is now the source of frequent commuting problems for NJ Transit riders, such as last week’s major breakdown that brought train travel to a halt during the evening rush due to power problems. An issue with signals inside the tunnel was also blamed for less extensive delays Tuesday evening, according to NJ Transit.

The new $9.5-billion tunnel is part of the broader Gateway infrastructure-renewal project that is being spearheaded by Amtrak, NJ Transit and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. And just as the Murphy administration put up the $600 million for the Portal Bridge, the Port Authority has earmarked $2.7 billion for the Gateway tunnel in its latest capital plan.

The existing tunnel is deemed safe, but there are deep concerns about how a long-term failure could impact the broader economy. By some estimates, the region served by the Northeast Corridor accounts for up to 20% of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Yet the Gateway tunnel project has yet to receive a strong priority ranking from the federal DOT as the Trump administration has repeatedly raised questions about the local funding commitment. A formal “record of decision” from the federal DOT is also long overdue, according to members of the local congressional delegation.

In addition, there has also been open speculation about whether politics have influenced the decision-making process given that Trump has frequently clashed with U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY), and other lawmakers in the solidly blue metropolitan area.

Metro officials frustrated

Steven M. Cohen, chairman of the Gateway Program Development Corporation, a multi-agency organization assembled to lead the infrastructure-renewal effort, pointed to recent changes made to the tunnel project’s finance plan, including a reduction of the overall cost, as he questioned the lower priority rating that continues to come from the Trump administration.

“The Department of Transportation continues to ignore the most urgent infrastructure project in the nation, despite our clear improvement to the plan to finance and build the Hudson Tunnel Project,” Cohen said.

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), another outspoken advocate for the tunnel project, said he will “not stop fighting” until the full federal portion of the tunnel funding is provided by the Trump administration.

“It is time to end the delays and build a 21st century transportation network that ensures the continued economic vitality of our state, region and nation,” he said.

Serving as a backdrop to the frustrations is the decision a decade ago by another Republican, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, to shut down work on ARC, a predecessor Hudson rail-tunnel project, over concerns about the potential for cost overruns that would ultimately have to be covered by New Jersey taxpayers. The timeline for that project called for a 2018 completion date, although construction likely would have been affected by Sandy as well.