The project will raise the bridge to 215 feet above the high-tide levels of the Kill Van Kull, which is necessary for larger ships to pass under the bridge. The $1.3 billion project is expected to start later this year.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, and Rep. Albio Sires praised the quick approval by the U.S. Coast Guard of the Port Authority’s plan to raise the bridge.
Raising the current roadway 64 feet from its current 151-foot height will allow the bigger 21st- century vessels to cross the Kill Van Kill without impediment to reach terminals in Newark and Elizabeth, once the Panama Canal expansion is completed in 2015.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the region’s ports, had received fast-track review status for the project last year from President Obama. But the U.S. Coast Guard is the federal permitting agency and needed to favorably complete the environmental-impact study before the project could proceed.
“The U.S. Coast Guard’s decision literally clears the way for this $1.3 billion “Raise the Roadway” project to deliver dividends to New Jersey’s economy for decades to come,’’ Christie said. “New Jersey’s bipartisan efforts to fast-track this project shows the value of cooperation to help our state’s citizens prosper economically.”
According to Bill Baroni, chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Coast Guard approval clears the way for the project to get its federal construction permits. At a May 20 press conference near the Bayonne Bride, he also said the road will be done by 2015, allowing ships to pass beneath the bridge. “We’ll be building a new road above, while traffic uses the old roadbed on the lower level,” Baroni said.
According to officials at the press conference, the new roadway would extend into the bridge’s historic arch while allowing traffic to use the original portion during construction. Lifting the segments of the new roadway and its connectors will take place at night when the bridge would be closed. When the new roadbed is complete, the old one will be demolished. The expansion will provide four 12-foot-wide traffic lanes, a wider bicycle and pedestrian walkway, and a component for possible rail transportation.
Sen. Menendez said New Jersey needs the project to ensure the port remains competitive in the global economy throughout the 21st century.
“It is gratifying that everyone worked together quickly and effectively to ensure the economic engine of the region remains strong,” he said.
Rep. Albio Sires called it a victory for New Jersey residents and the state’s economy.
“We appreciate the U.S. Coast Guard’s efforts to effectuate the President’s desire that this vital project be fast-tracked,” Sires said, referring to a move by President Obama last year that allowed the project to avoid a lot of federal red tape.
The decision will allow post-Panamax cargo vessels from Asian nations to travel under the Bayonne Bridge once the Panama Canal expansion provides direct access to the East Coast for these larger ships.
Environmental group disagrees with the decision
But an environmental group claims the Coast Guard ignored the negative impact on the environment in giving its approval for the Port Authority Bayonne Bridge Replacement Project.
The Coast Guard found in its environmental review there were Findings of No Significant Impact (FONSI). The permit for the project will be issued within the next week or so. The New Jersey Sierra Club believes the Coast Guard is wrong because it did not look at the entire scope of the project or the impact on surrounding communities. Since many in these communities are people of color and low-income residents, there is not an adequate environmental-justice analysis or air-quality analysis that would show the effects of increased air pollution.
“We believe that the Coast Guard is wrong in (its) decision since this project will have significant impacts to the environment and surrounding community,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This plan does not look at secondary or cumulative impacts to people or the environment. They also do not have a real plan to mitigate for any of those impacts. This area already has some of the worst air pollution in the nation, and this project will add to the pollution impacting people’s health. There should have been an open, transparent process that looks at the overall transportation needs, pollution impacts, and environmental justice to ensure this project is done right; otherwise we all suffer.”
At hearings in Newark last month, several groups raised the issue of possible increased pollution and the need for this to be addressed prior to granting permission to raise the bridge.
Tittel said there was no baseline health study done to look at potential health impacts from additional pollution from the volume and size of ships coming into the port. There was no study assessing impacts from additional pollution from port equipment unloading and moving cargo. They did not look at pollution from an increased volume of diesel trucks idling in the port area. Tittel also said that these communities already have some of the worst air pollution in the nation, especially for particulates. The increase in port and truck traffic will directly impact those communities.
“They fast tracked this project around environmental laws and regulations,” Tittel said. “We will be looking at whether there are grounds for an appeal.”
The environmental assessment did not call for any mitigation plan, Tittel pointed out, and the assessment did not address issues to offset air pollution, such as using electric power to move goods in the port facilities or using cleaner diesel and other hybrid technology to limit pollution or having clean diesel ships. The Environmental Protection Agency’s concern about this project was not addressed in the DEA’s assessment, according to Tittel. The assessment did not look at the increase in noise and shipment of hazardous materials through these communities or pollution from additional traffic jams because of an increase in port activity. It also did not look at the impacts of construction activities and traffic or health. They also tried to fast track the project without adequate public education and scrutiny. Documents were not available in a timely manner, and there were no materials available in Spanish.
“We are not opposed to the project,” Tittel said. “In fact we support raising the bridge and the expansion of Port Newark. We believe that this is the right project in the right place but what the Coast Guard did was wrong. They did not do the right thing here because there was not a proper environmental impact statement. As part of this billion-dollar project, there needs to be mitigation and offsets for the additional pollution, and that will not happen, so the public loses. The Port Authority forgets that they are using our money, and this project belongs to all of us. There should be a proper environmental impact statement and proper environmental protections in place.”
“We believe that this is the right project in the right place but what the Coast Guard did was wrong.” -- Jeff Tittel
Sen. Menendez responded to environmental concerns by saying that the new ships are less polluting than the ships that currently use the port and that port operations have been streamlined to include more productive use of rails. Also, older, higher-polluting trucks have been banned. He said his Liberty Corridor design moved warehouses closer to the port to reduce the need for extensive truck travel. “The question to ask is, what if we do not raise the bridge, and the new ships are forced to go to other ports?” Menendez said. “That will mean the goods needed will have to be transported here, and will mean even more truck traffic to the region since 80 percent of the goods that come into this port get used in this region.”
The ports in New York and New Jersey currently compete with ports in Canada and Virginia, which means, according to Menendez, that those goods would clog highways to get into this area, rather than come straight into the New York area via ship.
Baroni said that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has the environment in focus when making changes to the port, and that the changes related to the bridge project will improve the environment substantially, while also helping to increase the flow of goods and the creation of jobs in the New York region.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.