Gateway Program officials are in the final stages of applying for $7.1 billion in federal funds to cover much of the huge project's costs — and they expect to get it, eventually.
Much still needs to come together if plans to add a rail tunnel into New York and replace North Jersey’s frail Portal Bridge are to reach fruition. But progress seems to be taking shape behind the scenes at least on the funding front. And in the words of Gov. Phil Murphy, it’s “not just a matter of state or regional importance but a national priority.”
A knowledgeable source said he expects additional federal funding crucial to the project to be locked down by summer 2019.
Meantime, John D. Porcari — interim executive director of the Gateway Program Development Corp., a New Jersey-based organization created to manage the Gateway Program — wouldn’t go as far as putting a timeline on the funding. But the bridge work, he said, is the project’s most immediate priority.
“We have to make sure the region does not face a crisis with a malfunctioning bridge,” Porcari said.
Gateway Development Corp. is partnering on the Gateway Program with Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. A recently passed federal omnibus appropriations bill tags a chunk of funding for Gateway — potentially as much as $541 million — and Amtrak is set to apply for $2.65 billion as part of the total $7.1 billion sought.
Meantime, some of the earliest work on the Portal Bridge — an important rail connection in the region — already is underway.
That work is being funded via a $16 million federal grant secured last year by NJ Transit and some $4 million of the agency’s own money. The federal money flows from the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) program.
The work underway involves preparing the site for future major construction by relocating utilities, constructing access roads and building an in-river pier to receive construction materials.
Ultimately, the existing Portal North Bridge will be replaced and a two-track fixed bridge will be added on the Portal South Bridge between Kearny and Secaucus. The estimated cost for that portion of the bridge project: a cool $1.5 billion.
Of course, the price tag on the entire Gateway program is even more daunting, at $20 billion-plus by some projections. That’s largely due to the mammoth costs associated with constructing a new tunnel under the Hudson River into New York to expand rail capacity in the region.
Gateway backers cite the regular failure of the Portal Bridge as evidence of the project’s importance. Trains cannot pass when the 107-year-old bridge malfunctions as it did March 16, causing major transit delays.
Porcari said design work also is afoot on other parts of the Gateway Program.
“We are designing the tunnel, finished environmental work and are waiting for federal partners to approve it,” he said. “We are looking … to break the procurement into pieces. That is a way to get maximum competition, by having smaller work packages where more companies can compete.”
The various Gateway initiatives are expected to take at least 10 years to complete.
Porcari hailed the federal omnibus legislation for providing significant investment in rail and transit. “No project of national significance can be built without a federal partner,” he said.
Additionally, New Jersey and New York have committed a combined $5.5 billion toward building the tunnel, while NJ Transit and the Port Authority are committed to covering 50 percent of the construction costs of the Portal North Bridge.
The financial plan for the Hudson Tunnel project and Portal North Bridge projects does not include private capital at this time.
“We continue to refine the plan as needed, however, and remain open to other financing options as appropriate,” Porcari said. “[As for] all the disparate [public entities] coming together, they have already come together and are in lockstep because of the urgency of the project.”
Greg Lalevee, business manager of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825, said the region can’t afford further delay on the Portal Bridge work.
“We have seen enough of the disaster response,” Lalevee said. “It inflates cost.”
Transportation officials say a higher clearance, fixed-span Portal North Bridge will permit faster speeds, allow for an increase in NJ Transit train capacity and eliminate a single point of failures on the busiest section of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, which carries more than 200,000 daily Amtrak and NJ Transit riders on approximately 450 trains.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said the federal government needs to stop throwing up roadblocks if Gateway is to be completed in a timely way.
“The biggest challenge we face right now is overcoming the political games being played by the Trump administration, which has fabricated every excuse imaginable to delay the project,” Menendez said. “The Gateway Program doesn’t need any special treatment from the federal government. We can compete with any transportation project in the nation if we’re given a level playing field.”
Murphy recently told an assemblage of New Jersey business leaders he will “fight tooth and nail” for Gateway, noting it will “generate billions in economic development and will bring thousands of good-paying jobs to the region.”
And that sentiment is echoed by Michele Siekerka, CEO of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, who said after the federal omnibus appropriations were announced that Gateway is vital “for our competitiveness, economic development and quality of life.”
Added Siekerka: “The rail tunnel is not just important to New Jersey and New York commuters going back and forth to work. It’s the busiest rail hub in the Western Hemisphere and the most crucial artery of the entire Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C. So it is just and it is right that it receives its fair share of federal funding.”