For tens of thousands of rail travelers in the Northeast each day, making a curtain time or simply getting to work can hinge on a bridge built two years before the Titanic sank.
A regular cause of delays on the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C., and Boston, the 104-year-old Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River in northern New Jersey is viewed as the embodiment of aging railroad infrastructure in dire need of upgrading to accommodate increasing demand in the region.
“It is the Achilles’ heel of the Northeast Corridor,” said Drew Galloway, Amtrak’s chief of planning and performance on the corridor. “When something happens there, it hits a whole lot of people.”
Hope may be on the horizon for weary commuters. While major projects such as the building of new rail tunnels into New York are at least a decade away, a plan to replace the bridge could be finished in less than four years – provided about $940 million can be found to finish it.
That could be an uphill climb with Republicans, who have historically been wary of funding large infrastructure projects, poised to take control of Congress.
“At the end of the day it’s a choke point or a lifeline to the region, a region that produces 20 percent of GDP for the nation,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and current chairman of the Senate subcommittee on housing, transportation and community development. “I hope I can convince my colleagues who have a reticence for federal investment in transportation to understand that for no other reason, this is about economic necessity.”
Amtrak and NJ Transit, the state’s public transit agency, carry between 150,000 and 200,000 people across the bridge each day. The bridge swings open to allow vessels to pass underneath about two or three times a week, Galloway estimated, though the openings can be more frequent in winter because of more fuel oil deliveries.
Most delays occur when the bridge fails to close all the way. Galloway said that is partly due to the specific mechanics involved, which require the rails on the bridge to be lifted up to clear the rails on the approaches on either side.
The bridge has contributed to more than 200 delays from the beginning of 2013 through July 2014, according to NJ Transit.
Amtrak, which owns the bridge as well as most of the tracks along the Northeast Corridor, and NJ Transit were able to complete design and environmental permitting because the Federal Railroad Administration classified the bridge as being vital enough to replace on its own, even if it wasn’t part of a larger infrastructure project. Amtrak and NJ Transit spent about $31 million on preliminary design, and $38.5 million for final design was paid for by an FRA grant, according to Amtrak spokesman Craig Schulz.
The new bridge would be non-movable and 50 feet above mean high water, or about double the current height, eliminating the need for openings. It also would enable trains to cross at 90 mph instead of the current 60 mph, according to Galloway. It wouldn’t accommodate extra trains, but it would eliminate delays.
Not everyone is convinced federal money should go toward a new bridge. Joseph Clift, a former official at the Long Island Railroad and Conrail, believes resources should focus on new rail tunnels into New York that would significantly increase train capacity.
“Could you do the Portal Bridge? Yes,” he said. “Will it make people’s daily lives any better? No.”
In a report released last month, Amtrak said salt-water damage from 2012’s Superstorm Sandy was worse than initially thought and would require one of the two tubes in the tunnel under the Hudson River to close for a year for repairs. The report didn’t specify a timetable.
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