August 28, 2019 4:30 PM, EDT

NYC-Area Rail Bridge Planners Take Another Shot at Federal Funds

Railroad tracks Emile Wamsteker/Bloomberg News

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New Jersey and New York officials will submit a revised financial plan for the $1.6 billion replacement of a decrepit bridge that’s key to rail traffic in the U.S. Northeast, the latest attempt to secure funding from a recalcitrant administration.

Ahead of the submission, congressional delegates and other elected officials Aug. 28 issued a public plea for President Donald Trump to help fund the replacement of the century-old Portal Bridge.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat whose district includes the New York City suburbs, said environmental permits and designs are in place for the Hackensack River span between Kearny and Secaucus. Construction theoretically could start tomorrow, he said.

“The bridge has caught on fire twice in the past two decades and when it’s not catching fire, it’s often out of service,” Gottheimer said at a Secaucus news conference. “We are all ready to sit down with anybody — anyone — to get this project across the finish line.”

The bridge is part of the proposed Gateway series of projects to upgrade New York City-area train service along the Northeast Corridor, the nation’s busiest passenger-rail route, with 800,000 daily riders. In excessive heat or cold, the swing span, which opens for maritime traffic, sometimes fails to close properly, and the fix is to whack it with a sledgehammer.

“Every time it opens we have to hold our collective breath that it will make it all the way closed,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said.

The Gateway project was left out last week when the Federal Railroad Administration announced the selection of 10 rail projects in 10 states, totaling more than $272 million in grants from the fiscal 2017 and 2018 appropriations bills. Congress had intended much of that to go to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, but Gateway couldn’t qualify because the railroad administration limited funding to projects in the construction phase.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has downgraded the bridge among its funding priorities, while Trump’s administration has said New York and New Jersey, not U.S. taxpayers, should shoulder Gateway’s costs. Boosters argue that the Northeast Corridor region generates 20% of the gross domestic product, and a prolonged bridge or tunnel failure would drag down the U.S. economy.

Planners on Aug. 23 submitted a revised financial proposal for another Gateway component, a tunnel linking New York and New Jersey and the structural makeover of the sole link, damaged by flood.

In a letter to the Federal Transit Administration, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said it could cut $1.4 billion from the tunnel project’s estimate, for a total $11.3 billion. Still, that revised financial plan relies on roughly $10 billion in federal grants and loans, a sum called unrealistic by U.S. transportation officials because such a commitment would starve projects in other states.