It’s not the first time officials have come together to celebrate construction of a New Portal North Bridge — a replacement for the notorious choke point that delays up and down the Northeast Corridor as it opens for river traffic.
But, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy promised at a groundbreaking Monday, that it would be the day work to replace “one of the most critical connection points along the entire Northeast corridor begins in earnest.”
Federal, state and city lawmakers pledged the start of the long-delayed project, pegged as an economic boon to the region. They gathered around a pile of manure in a parking lot across from where the new bridge will be located, dug in faux gold shovels and tossed several shovelfuls to mark the occasion.
Afterward, lawmakers and attendees lined up to get a photo with US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg in a tent.
“Over the years, this critical piece of infrastructure has evolved from a transit marvel into a transit nightmare,” US Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat representing New Jersey, said. “It’s old, it’s limiting and it’s unreliable.”
One out of seven times, the current, nearly 112-year-old bridge swings open to let river traffic through, it gets stuck, he said. Workers have to slam it with sledgehammers to get the alignment back in place, Buttigieg said.
Menendez called the Portal North Bridge a “choke point on the busiest stretch of rail in America.”
The bridge will be 50 feet high, more than double the current bridge’s height, so boats can easily pass below. It’ll also be part of a new 2.4-mile span of track with a gradual incline leading to the bridge, which will allow trains to maintain their speed when crossing. The current bridge has speed restrictions, which forces trains to slow down when crossing.
NJ Transit President Kevin S. Corbett said the first track of the new bridge would open in 2026.
New York and New Jersey officials agreed last month to split about $772 million not covered by federal funding. NJ Transit last year announced it had awarded a nearly $1.6 billion construction contract for the project.
“This project turns the Portal North Bridge from a choke point to an access point,” Buttigieg said at the groundbreaking. “I hope that this bridge will not only bring people to work and loved ones to where they need to be, but it brings renewed confidence in our ability to get things done together. We’ve got a lot more good work where this came from — we are entering into a true infrastructure decade.”
Still, speaking to reporters later, Buttigieg, who was appointed by President Joe Biden, couldn’t say whether a new administration would be able to pull the plug on funding for this project and the much larger Gateway Project — an infrastructure undertaking aimed at expanding rail service into and out of New York City.
During the Trump administration, Gateway and the MTA’s congestion pricing program languished while federal authorities held up the federal review process.
The next step of the $30 billion Gateway Project is to build a new tunnel under the Hudson River. Amtrak, which owns the tunnels, hopes to break ground on that element of the project next year. But it has yet to secure a funding commitment from the federal government.
Buttigieg told the Gothamist his office is doing its best to push that along, but said all projects need to complete the proper paperwork.
“Our focus is to make sure that the gears of government turn as efficiently as they can, knowing that, obviously when you’re talking about what will add up to tens of billions of dollars of taxpayer money, you gotta do everything right,” he said. “And there’s no do overs.”