At last, commuters will see construction of a new Portal Bridge from their train windows

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Construction to replace the infrastructure that everyone hates — the cranky Portal Bridge that carries hundreds of NJ Transit and Amtrak trains over the Hackensack River — has been given the green light to start.

Cue the Hallelujah Chorus, which at least might be mentally replayed by thousands of rail commuters who been delayed over the years when the aging bridge failed to close after being opened.

Issuing a “notice to proceed,” which allows contractors to start building the new $1.5 billion bridge, was announced Thursday by Gov. Phil Murphy and NJ Transit officials.

“After years of crucial behind-the-scenes work, this notice to proceed means train customers will soon see tangible evidence of our commitment to modernizing the rail system,” Murphy said in a statement.

Specifically, what commuters will see from train windows is the arrival of contractors’ heavy construction equipment on the work site, the prelude to starting the more-than-five-year process to build the replacement span, NJ Transit officials said.

The project is being funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, NJ Transit and Amtrak after a $766.5 million full funding grant agreement was signed in January 2021 by Murphy.

The project replaces a swing bridge built in 1910 that had an annoying habit of failing to close all the way, requiring workers to pound miter rails back into position while tens of thousands of delayed rail passengers fumed.

“This notice to proceed brings us yet another step closer to making the new Portal North Bridge a reality,” New Jersey Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti said.

NJ Transit’s massive construction contract to build the Portal North Bridge for $1.559 billion was awarded by the agency’s board of directors to Skanska/Traylor Bros PNB Joint Venture (STJV) in October 2021.

The old two-track bridge is the busiest rail bridge in the nation and a chokepoint on the Northeast Corridor line, used by about 450 trains each day.

Beginning the bridge construction marks the start of the first major part of the Gateway Project, which also calls for two new rail tunnels under the Hudson River to New York’s Penn Station and rehabilitate the existing 111-year old tunnels. It would build a second Portal South bridge and additional tracks to create a four-track railroad line between Secaucus Junction and the Hudson River.

“Because of our shared unwavering commitment, we now celebrate the start of major construction on a new Portal North Bridge, the first of the Gateway Program projects to reach this milestone,” said Amtrak Board Chairman Tony Coscia.

This is not the first work commuters have seen. In 2017, $20 million in prep work started to relocating utilities, building a staging area for construction materials and do other preliminary work that was completed in 2019.

The new bridge will be 50 feet over the Hackensack River and will allow marine traffic to pass underneath without having to open and interrupt train traffic.

Murphy and other officials thanked U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Robert Menendez and the state congressional delegation for keeping funding for Portal Bridge and Gateway alive when the Trump administration tried to strip it from the federal budget and lowered Portal and Gateway Tunnel project rankings, making it harder to qualify for grants.

President Donald Trump announced in June 2020 that he would approve the project after dining at his Bedminster golf club with Murphy.

The new span will be built next to the old bridge, and the first track is scheduled to be open in November 2025. The last track could be put into service in July 2026, with full completion targeted for 2027.

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Larry Higgs may be reached at lhiggs@njadvancemedia.com.

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