All [Infrastructure] News is Local

Jun 26 2020 |
The Portal Bridge in New Jersey is over a century old and frequently causes delays on the Northeast Corridor, the busiest railroad route in the country. Plans to replace the bridge (see design above) have been in the works for years, but the project has been long delayed. | Amtrak

The first in an occasional series of stories on local infrastructure needs.

Editor’s note: We talk a lot about infrastructure at the Alliance for American Manufacturing. America’s roads, bridges, water systems, electric grid, public transit, airports, railways, pipelines, dams, and more are all in terrible shape. Investing to fix them will create millions of jobs and boost the economy at a critical time.

But oftentimes, the conversation about infrastructure is rather wonky, failing to fully express just how personal infrastructure is. After all, infrastructure is all around us. It is the pipelines that deliver safe drinking water into our homes and the electricity that powers them; it is the sidewalks in our neighborhoods and the schools where our children learn.

In a new occasional series, AAM staffers will explore infrastructure needs in their own community. First up are two stories, from two different coasts, about two different bridges.

The Portal Bridge, New Jersey

For those that who travel on NJ Transit or Amtrak while in New Jersey, delays are nothing new. The Portal Bridge, which has been called the Achilles’ heel of the Northeast Corridor, is more than likely the culprit. {media_2}

The Portal Bridge is a two-track, railroad swing-type drawbridge, which crosses the Hackensack River in New Jersey. It was built in 1910 as part of the Pennsylvania Railroad's extension from the Garden State into Manhattan, and typically carries 450 NJ Transit and Amtrak trains a day.

But the bridge is a pinch point in the Northeast Corridor (NEC), which is the most heavily used passenger rail line in the United States. The NEC extends from Washington, D.C. in the south to Boston, Mass. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 300,000 passengers crossed the Portal Bridge on Amtrak and NJ TRANSIT trains between New Jersey and NYC every day.

The existing Portal Bridge, due to its age and current condition, is a single point of failure on the NEC, causing major rail traffic delays due to mechanical failures that occur on a bridge with 110-year-old fixtures and parts. Part of the issues come when it has to open to allow boats through.

Of the 114 times the Portal Bridge had to open in a year to allow for boat traffic, there was a mechanical failure 15 percent of the time. The Portal Bridge fails to close properly one out of seven times it opens, because the rails can fail to lock into place.

In extreme cases, rail crews must bang the rails into place with sledgehammers before trains can cross.

New Jersey officials have sought to replace the Portal Bridge for years, and the proposed new bridge will be high enough over the water that it won't have to open for boats.

In December 2008, the Federal Railroad Administration approved a $1.34 billion project to replace the Portal Bridge. The original timeline for the project called for construction of the new bridge to begin in 2010, with the bridge replacement to be complete by 2017. But the project stalled due to funding.

Things could soon be moving ahead, however. After dining with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy earlier this month, President Trump announced he has “given authorization to proceed” on replacing the bridge.  While Trump has no direct control in approving the project, which is now priced at $1.8 billion, it is seen as a sign that federal officials plan to move ahead. 

New funding for the project has been announced as well. The Federal Railroad Administration awarded $91.5 million to Amtrak and NJ Transit for the replacement of the century-old Portal Bridge.

"This is a huge win for our state, our commuters and the future of our economy," Murphy said at a press conference.

It’s time to finally get this job done. There’s widespread agreement that the Portal Bridge needs to be replaced, and another upside is the amount of jobs and income an infrastructure project of this size could create. It has been estimated that 1 billion invested in infrastructure creates approximately 21,000 jobs.  A strong push to make sure that materials and goods are Made in the USA could create even more revenue.

–Mark Musho

The Shoemaker Bridge, California

The American Society of Civil Engineers give bridges in my home state of California a C- grade. {media_1}

In my household, that is not much of a passing grade for my expectations of schoolwork, I digress. And for the bridge that I frequent with my family, it definitely does not meet my standards for safety – definitely a failing grade to me.

The Shoemaker Bridge connects the very congested 710 freeway to Downtown Long Beach, which is home to many great attractions and eateries. But the bridge itself has a number of structural and operational deficiencies, and officials have discussed the need to replace the bridge for years.

Now there’s finally progress. In April, the City Council unanimously approved an environmental impact report to replace the bridge, clearing the way for the project. Construction could begin by early 2023, and the new bridge is expected to be complete in 2025.

Along with making things safer for drivers and addressing some traffic issues, the new bridge will realign streets to add four acres of additional space at nearby Cesar Chavez Park. Officials also are incorporating a bike and pedestrian path, allowing for a lot more outdoor activities on a safe route. 

The bridge project already has brought new jobs to the Long Beach. With the vast amount of workers on this project, it will add a great deal to the local economy over the next few years through restaurant visits, gas station fill-ups, and perhaps even things like grocery shopping.

Personally, I take this bridge often to go to restaurants and bars in the area.  It is nice to know now that the bridge will be safe to ride on. 

On another note, I wish the city would address the congested 710 freeway, but that’s a much longer discussion for another day. 

Jennifer Drudge