The Biden Administration has reversed a Trump-era Federal Transit Administration (FTA) policy that prohibited states and local entities from using federal loans as part of their matching funds when applying for federal transportation grants.
U.S. Senator Robert Menendez said the decision moves the Gateway Project froward, which includes replacing the Portal Bridge and construction of a new trans-Hudson rail tunnel.
Portal North Bridge
The 110-year-old Portal Bridge spans the Hackensack River from Kearny to Secaucus, carrying a daily average of 450 trains and 200,000 passengers. The decrepit, swing-style bridge is notorious for breaking down and getting stuck in the open position for marine traffic, stranding commuters and bringing Amtrak and NJ Transit service to a halt.
Under the Gateway Project, the Portal Bridge would be replaced by the Portal North Bridge, estimated at $1.8 billion. The new bridge would be higher than the current one and fixed in place, eliminating malfunctions.
Building a new, higher, fixed Portal North Bridge is a key component of the broader Gateway Project, which includes modernizing the rail infrastructure between Newark and New York Penn Stations, construction of a new Hudson River rail tunnel, and rehabilitation of the existing century-old tubes that were severely damaged by Superstorm Sandy.
Securing federal funding
After four years of arbitrary delays, unsubstantiated rating cuts, and other roadblocks put up during the Trump Administration, a more than $800 million federal Full Funding Grant Agreement was reached last December that allows construction of a new Portal Bridge. Other funding will include $811 million from the state and $261.5 million from Amtrak.
In February of 2020, the Federal Transit Administration announced that it had upgraded the rating to medium-high, making the project eligible for the engineering phase and closer to full federal funding. NJ Transit had requested approximately $800 million in Capital Investment Grant (CIG) funds.
In June, the project had moved into the engineering phase of the CIG program. More than $91.5 million from the Federal Railroad Administration was announced in May to improve service along the Northeast Corridor.
In August, the FTA announced that $248 million had been set aside for the Portal Bridge replacement project. That funding comes from appropriations that the congressional delegation provided to the CIG program in the 2018 and 2019 budgets, despite opposition from the Trump Administration.
In 2015, Menendez, Sen. Booker, Rep. Sires, and Rep. Pascrell helped secure a $16 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant to fund $20 million in preliminary construction, which broke ground in the fall of 2017.
“The Trump Administration pulled this ridiculous policy out of thin air in order to delay and derail the Gateway Project,” Menendez said. “Much like a mortgage loan to buy a house, federal loans that must be repaid by states and other local entities applying for federal transportation grants have long been considered a part of the local funding match. I repeatedly called on the previous administration to reverse course, but they insisted on continuing to ignore the law. The Biden Administration was right to undo Trump’s ill-conceived policy and restore sanity and common sense to the FTA.”
After the Trump administration broke precedent to adopt the policy, Menendez helped lead the effort to include language in subsequent appropriations bills to block that provision.
Menendez met with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg prior to his confirmation. The secretary expressed support for Gateway and pledged to end the political interference that has slowed the project.
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