After years of politicizing and delays, New Jersey Transit approved a $1.559 billion contract for the replacement of the aging Portal North rail bridge, which has become a choke point for one of the nation’s heaviest-traveled stretches of railway.
NJ Transit, at its Oct. 12 board of directors meeting, approved the contract in an 8-0 vote between Skanska and Traylor Bros Joint Venture for construction of the new bridge.
The current bridge is 110 years old and crosses the Hackensack River, with up to 200,000 daily commuters, as well as Amtrak riders and other rail traffic along the Northeast Corridor to the Hudson River tunnels into Manhattan. It was designed and built as a swing drawbridge to allow maritime traffic through, but often gets stuck in the open position, snarling rail traffic.
As part of the new plans, Portal North would stand 50 feet over the Hackensack River – 25 feet higher than the current bridge – allowing maritime traffic to pass under the structure without interrupting rail service.
The new bridge would be able to handle a top speed of 90 miles per hour, versus the 60 miles per hour on the existing structure, according to NJ Transit board documents. That could entail a 14.4% increase in peak-hour capacity, NJ Transit said.
According to the agency, the first track would open in November 2025, followed by the last track in July 2026 and full completion the following year.
U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-7th District, which includes many Manhattan commuters, said he wanted the contractors to accelerate that schedule.
The bridge is part of much larger construction plans under the umbrella Gateway project, which involves two new tubes under the Hudson River and the eventual rehabilitation of the existing tunnel, which like the bridge have been in use since before the First World War.
By the latest estimates from August, the two new tunnels would cost $10.1 billion, while repairs would cost $2.2 billion. “Major construction” would start in two years in August 2023, according to the Gateway Development Corp., which is overseeing the tunnel’s construction.
“With today’s step, NJ Transit is rapidly moving towards beginning the first phase of the largest infrastructure project in the United States,” reads a prepared statement from Gov. Phil Murphy.
The award, Murphy added, would “bring a bridge that would resolve the long-standing bottlenecks plaguing New Jersey commuters.”
Both projects had initially been set to move forward in 2010 as part of the Access to the Region’s Core, but then-Gov. Chris Christie scuttled the plans citing cost overruns.
Despite considerable support from the Obama administration for Gateway in the following years, the projects nonetheless ground to a halt under President Donald Trump. His administration stonewalled the environmental review process for the tunnel and downgraded both projects so they would not be eligible for funding, repeatedly opposing any congressional spending for Gateway.
But Trump acquiesced in June 2020, following a private dinner between him and Murphy at the former president’s Bedminster golf club, and the Federal Transit Administration agreed in January to put $766 million on the table.
Another $57.1 million for the bridge is coming from the Federal Highway Administration, $261.5 million from Amtrak and $811 million from the Garden State.
“A new Portal North Bridge that won’t have to open and close for river traffic is vital to improving safety, speed and reliability in the busiest section of the Northeast Corridor,” said Amtrak Board Chair Tony Coscia said in a prepared statement.