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President Biden kicks off construction of Portal North Bridge

The Commander-in-Chief also called for the passage of legislation to overhaul infrastructure nationwide

Biden talks infrastructure in Kearny on Oct. 25. Photo by Edwin J. Torres for the Governor’s Office

President Joe Biden has officially kicked off the construction of the Portal North Bridge in Kearny. Biden addressed officials and the press at the event held at the NJ Transit Maintenance Complex on Oct. 25.

The new bridge will replace the current 110-year-old Portal Bridge, a railroad bridge that spans 2.44 miles of the Northeast Corridor crossing the Hackensack River from Kearny to Secaucus. The move comes after officials secured funding for the bridge project earlier this year, with the project being funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, NJ TRANSIT and Amtrak.

In January, Gov. Phil Murphy announced the signing of a Full Funding Grant Agreement which secured $766.5 million in Federal Transit Administration funding to support the project’s construction. Earlier this month, NJ Transit signed a $1.599 billion contract with Skanska/Traylor Bros Joint Venture for the construction of the bridge earlier this month. Construction is anticipated to take approximately five and a half years.

The new bridge is one component of the larger Gateway Program, which aims to double rail capacity between Newark and New York. Another proposed project in the county is the construction of new rail tunnels under the Hudson River.

Years in the making

Prior to the President’s remarks, a number of state representatives who have been lobbying for the project spoke, including Gov. Murphy and Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., who represents the 9th Congressional District encompassing Secaucus and parts of Kearny.

“We are ready to move forward on the much needed and long-awaited replacement of the outdated Portal Bridge,” Murphy said. “When it works, the Northeast Corridor fully functions…When it doesn’t, the Northeast Corridor, the people it carries, and all the economic activity it supports, comes to a screeching halt. Over the recent past, that’s happened more and more often… Now, it is time for us to give our region the modern, safe, and reliable infrastructure that a 21st century economy demands. And that’s exactly what the entirety of the Gateway Program will do… I am so grateful for the support the President and his team, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and his, our congressional delegation, legislative partners, all who have given not just to the Portal North Bridge project but the even bigger one waiting for us just up the tracks, the construction of new rail tunnels under the Hudson.”

“The Portal Bridge is a relic,“ Pascrell Jr. said. “Transit commuters and Amtrak passengers will no longer have to rely on our past, as glorious as it may be, preparing for the future. The Portal Bridge will ease millions of lives… Today’s announcement is a testament that leadership matters. Prior administrations here in New Jersey and Washington derailed our progress. They let the Portal and Gateway projects languish. But thanks to President Biden, Governor Murphy, and our united congressional team, we are finally moving forward… Its modernization will provide union jobs and ensure safe and continued growth for generations to come.”

Biden boasts building better bridge

In an approximately twenty-minute speech, Biden addressed the new bridge, as well as his infrastructure bill and “Build Back Better” bill. The President’s stop in Kearny was also part of a last-minute stop in the state to help campaign for Murphy, who is running for re-election against Republican Jack Ciatterelli on Nov. 2.

“The infrastructure bill is about rebuilding the arteries of America,” Biden said. “And the Portal Bridge project shows why investments like this are so important. When the Portal Bridge was built, it was state of the art. It really was 110 years ago. Today it’s been called something different: a choke point, a bottleneck, an Achilles’ Heel of the Northeast Corridor. Since the Portal Bridge was built, it has become the busiest rail span in the entire Western Hemisphere.”

Biden said that at peak usage, over 450 trains pass over the bridge every day carrying over 200,000 Amtrak and NJ Transit passengers.

“But ships and barges also need to get under it and many can’t fit,” Biden said. “That means the bridge needs to swing open and close again, a process that stops rail traffic and causes other problems. The bridge opens over a hundred times a year, and fifteen percent of the time something goes wrong. For example, if the rails don’t lock back in place exactly right, the bridge closes. And sometimes, you know what fixes it? In the 21st Century, a sledgehammer. They come out with a sledgehammer and align the tracks.”

Biden cited a report from a couple of years ago that found the bridge responsible for approximately 2000 hours of delays between 2014 and 2018. He said that aging infrastructure is “not just a nuisance, but an impediment to America’s global competitiveness” in the worldwide race toward advanced infrastructure.

“We’re moving forward on a new bridge that will be higher over the water so it won’t need to open and close,” Biden said. “It will allow us to increase speed, safety, efficiency, and capacity. It’s going to make life a lot better for New Jersey’s commuters.”

Creating union jobs

Biden boasted the jobs that the project would create in Hudson: “It’s also going to create nearly 8,000 construction jobs in this area alone.” He added that they would be union jobs with a decent wage.

“It’s about to make rail transportation, which is the cleaner, greener way to travel, the better choice for New Jersey residents,” Biden said. “But not just New Jersey, everyone up and down the East Coast.

Biden said he was a “train guy,” having frequently traveled on Amtrak trains from Washington D.C. to Delaware and back throughout his career. He touted rail as a cleaner way to travel, calling it “a single best way to deal with global warming.”

“With my infrastructure bill, we are going to make sure projects like this are just the beginning,” Biden said. “Across the country, there are 45,000 bridges in disrepair, some of them dangerously so; 173,000 miles of roads are in poor condition. We’re going to fix them. These are going to be good union jobs, prevailing wage you can raise a family on. Jobs that can’t be outsourced.”

According to Biden, the bill would invest an unprecedented amount of money into the nation’s infrastructure including bridges and roads.

“We’re going to make the largest investment in public transportation in the history of America that replaces transit vehicles past their useful life and make the most significant investment in rail since the creation of Amtrak fifty years ago,” Biden said.

Better for the environment

Biden reiterated that train travel was the best way to help the climate: “During peak periods when railroads are congested and rail carries more passengers, rail is up to ten times more energy efficient than a person driving. We have a huge opportunity here to provide reliable, fast, safe and clean transportation in this country.”

Biden said the proposed legislation aims to strengthen the nation’s infrastructure against climate change, and called for its passage.

“How many times under the former guy did we have ‘infrastructure week’?,” Biden said. “Not a single thing happened. We need to get this done. It isn’t enough just to invest in our physical infrastructure. We also have to invest in our people. That’s what my second bill, the ‘Build Back Better’ plan, does.”

The “Build Back Better” bill aims to lower costs of healthcare, education, prescription drugs, childcare, and housing, while cutting taxes and creating jobs. Of the proposals in the bill, Biden specifically highlighted the proposed extension of the Child CareTax Credit and the proposed establishment of universal preschool.

“This initiative is about betting on America, believing in America, believing in American people,” Biden said. “If you look at the history of the journey of this nation, what becomes clear is this: given half a chance, the American people have never, ever, ever, let their country down. So let’s get this done. Let’s move.”

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com. 

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