Gateway project clears hurdle amid roadblocks from Trump

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A key New Jersey link to the long-stalled Gateway Tunnel project under the Hudson River into Manhattan cleared a major barrier for federal funding Monday and now awaits clearance from the White House before proceeding.

The U.S. Department of Transportation elevated the rating for a planned new Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River to medium high, which makes the project eligible for federal support. The new high-level fixed span would be capable of supporting both New Jersey Transit and Amtrak trains at speeds of up to 90 miles per hour and replace the current 110-year old movable turntable-style bridge.

The Portal North Bridge over the Hackensack River is an important link to the long-stalled Gateway Tunnel project connecting northern New Jersey with Manhattan's Penn Station.

“We are extremely pleased with the USDOT’s decision to advance the Portal North Project closer to a Full Funding Grant Agreement,” NJ Transit president & CEO Kevin Corbett said in a statement. “This critical project can’t wait any longer as this nearly 110-year-old bridge is a frequent source for delays and frustration for our nearly 90,000 customers who travel to and from Penn Station New York every day.”

New Jersey agreed in 2018 to assume the entire share of local costs for the Portal North Bridge project by issuing $600 million of state-appropriation-backed bonds through the New Jersey Economic Development Authority in a bid to receive federal grants for it. The bonds have not been sold yet as the state awaits whether the federal government will commit to share in the overall project costs for replacing a century-old rail underground rail tunnel connecting northern New Jersey with Manhattan’s Penn Station.

NJ Transit in partnership with Amtrak submitted a revised grant application last fall to the Federal Transit Administration for that now awaits approval from the Trump administration. The Hudson tunnels and Portal Bridge projects received lower ratings after President Trump assumed office in January 2017 than what were assigned under the Obama administration making them ineligible for federal funds under the Capital Investment Grant program.

The states of New Jersey and New York have hit roadblocks obtaining federal funding for the Gateway project since President Trump assumed office in January 2017. The two states, Amtrak, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey agreed to a funding framework in 2015 signed off by the Obama administration to pay for 50% of the replacement tunnels if the federal government picked up the other half.

“We can get Gateway done faster and cheaper with President Trump fully onboard,” U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said in a statement. “While it is my hope that the advancement of Portal Bridge represents a recognition by the Trump Administration that Gateway is a project of national significance, the continued low ratings for the Hudson River tunnels show that we must remain vigilant and continue to hold this administration’s feet to the fire.”

The Trump administration previously rejected a $5.5 billion local commitment for the Gateway project since some of the funding would have derived from federal loan programs. Gateway partners trimmed the project’s estimated price tag by $1.4 billion and cut the government’s CIG portion by five percentage points to 44% last August in a bid to increase odds of federal support.

An FTA spokesperson said Tuesday that the Portal North Bridge rating was improved as a result of NJ Transit taking important steps recommended by transportation officials to improve the project’s financial plan. Before the Portal North Bridge project can be considered for a capital investment grant award, NJ Transit must complete some final steps that include finalizing project costs, scope and schedule, according to the spokesperson.

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