New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy was incorrect when he recently said, “The Portal Bridge has been granted official permission by the Federal Transit Administration to enter into final design and engineering and this includes full federal funding.”
He did not leave the White House meeting with a $766 million federal check in hand toward paying for the $1.8 billion Portal Bridge. There is no legal commitment at this point in time for federal funding. All that has been approved is permission to enter final design and engineering.
This is only the second of three critical milestones for the federal New Starts funding process. The next step is for the FTA to approve completion of final design and engineering. This would result in moving into the third and final phase which is a formal discussion about approval of a Full Funding Grant Agreement by FTA. This is the legal commitment for real federal dollars.
Financing the local share to cover any cost overruns for this project is still an open question. Currently the local share is being financed by borrowing rather than hard cash. Still outstanding from the Portal Bridge project sponsor is the formal submittal of a revised financial plan. This would document the local sponsors financial capacity to cover any unexpected cost increase or funding shortfall. When did Governor Murphy promise Washington that this key document will be submitted to FTA for formal review?
The process for submittal and review by FTA could take several months or more. There is frequently a series of questions and request for additional information if the document doesn’t pass muster. Based upon the past history of previous FTA Full Funding Grant Agreements, it is unrealistic to assume having just entered final design and engineering that you would obtain approval of an FFGA from FTA within the same year with only six months remaining.
Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked 31 years for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for New Jersey Transit, MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Rail Road MTA Bus, NYC DOT along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ