Paving the way for Gateway project

Menendez, Pascrell, and Sires push to advance new tunnel
Upgrading the Portal Bridge in Secaucus is a key piece in proposed Gateway tunnel project
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Upgrading the Portal Bridge in Secaucus is a key piece in proposed Gateway tunnel project

Two weeks after Gov. Phil Murphy announced in Jersey City that his administration would do everything it could to improve transportation in Northern New Jersey, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, ranking member of the Senate’s transit subcommittee, and Representatives Bill Pascrell, Jr. and Albio Sires, urged the federal government to clear obstacles to a project they say is desperately needed.

The 107-year-old North River Tunnel, carrying thousands of Amtrak and NJ Transit passengers between New York City and New Jersey each day, needs to be closed down in order to fully repair damage caused by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

But in order to close it down, a new tunnel must be constructed to handle existing rail traffic into and out of Manhattan.

Despite numerous calls by local elected officials to Washington to fund the proposed, and long-stalled, “Gateway Project” – which would rehabilitate the tunnel, add a new one, and replace the decrepit Portal Bridge – the Trump Administration has been tightfisted in allocating funds for the $30 billion endeavor.

The administration last year killed a funding proposal by former President Barack Obama, in which New York and New Jersey would’ve paid half the project cost, with the federal government covering the rest.

The project, which involved some construction in Hudson County, actually got started around 2009 as the ARC Tunnel, but was canceled in 2010 after former Gov. Chris Christie said there wasn’t enough money in the state budget.

Murphy says Gateway is a federal issue

In an appearance in Jersey City on Jan. 17, Murphy said NJ Transit would be making other moves, such as training new engineers to reduce the number of canceled trains, and push ahead with other projects that would help improve service all over.

“We cannot do anything about the Gateway project because that is in the hands of the federal government,” Murphy said.

The Hudson Tunnel Project, which aims to replace a century-old tunnel system that serves 200,000 daily passengers, is viewed by transit experts as the most urgent transportation infrastructure project in the country. The project would increase rider capacity along the Northeast Corridor.

The two tunnels, which have been worn down by decades of daily service and major storms including Superstorm Sandy, are critical to the regional and national economy. However, before construction on the project can advance, DOT must approve the project’s environmental impact review.

Menendez, Pascrell and Sires coauthored a letter on Jan. 29 that was sent to U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Elaine Chao in support of the Hudson Tunnel Project. The letter urged her to accept a proposal of Gateway Program Development Corporation Chairman Jerry Zaro that the Trump administration’s “One Federal Decision” policy be used to complete and publish the Hudson Tunnel Project’s final environmental review.

This framework would move the project forward and not allow long delays or government shutdowns to continue to affect this infrastructure plan.

In April, DOT was one of several federal agencies to enter a Memorandum of Understanding to establish timely processing of environmental reviews for major infrastructure projects and “eliminate duplication of effort among agencies.”

On Dec. 10, 2018, the Federal Railroad Administration completed its review of the Project’s environmental impact statement and sent it to the Federal Transit Administration for review.

Jersey City will turn over Secaucus land for Gateway project

One of the key pieces of the project includes the reconstruction of the Portal Bridge that crosses from Kearny into Secaucus, over which all Manhattan-bound train traffic must pass.

The New Jersey Economic Development Authority has allocated $600 million to replace the Portal Bridge, Murphy said.

New Jersey, New York, and the Port Authority have earmarked $5.5 billion for a $12.7 billion Hudson Tunnel Project, which is one phase of the overall Gateway program, focusing solely on the tunnel work.

Jersey City is poised to sell 14 acres of land it owns in Secaucus as a key piece in the construction of a new Portal Bridge by NJ Transit.

“The property had some deed restrictions,” said Brian Platt, business administrator for Jersey City.

The landlocked parcel in the Laurel Hill section of Secaucus had been set aside for recreation and conservation purposes under an agreement with Hudson County, which owns Laurel Hill County Park and High-Tech High School nearby.

NJ Transit needs to use the land to complete its Portal Bridge replacement project; the restrictions must be released before NJ Transit can begin work.

The new design will allow trains to cross the bridge at up to 90 mph and the bridge will be elevated to 50 feet above high water to allow marine traffic to pass below it without any need to open and close.

The Portal Bridge is also tied to a new track alignment west of the Secaucus station that will rise dramatically over the landscape on a 2-percent grade. That’s a two-foot rise for every 100 feet of track that will allow the new bridge to clear any barges on the river.

The Northeast Rail Corridor, which relies on the North River Tunnel and the Portal Bridge, accounts for about $4 trillion in transported goods as well as about 450 daily trains to New York City.

Last year because of problems with the Portal Bridge, 140 trains were canceled, each time delaying more than 100,000 passengers.

How Jersey City came to have oversight over the 14-acre parcel is unclear. But, according to Platt, the Jersey City business administrator, it has become a critical part of the region’s transportation network plan.

Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com