Coast Guard issues NPRM to make Portal Bridge rush hour opening restrictions permanent

Oct. 9, 2019
The restrictions, championed by Sen. Bob Menendez, should improve commute times for nearly 300,000 riders who use the bridge each weekday.

The U.S. Coast Guard has issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to make permanent the peak time restrictions for maritime traffic that governs when Amtrak’s Portal Bridge can be opened. The NPRM was published in the Oct. 7 edition of the Federal Register and the Coast Guard does not consider it to be “significant regulatory action.” 

In March, the U.S. Coast Guard issued an order that prohibited the opening of the bridge in Kearny, N.J., for marine traffic on the Hackensack River between 5:00-10:00 a.m. and 3:00-8:00 p.m. for six months. The order was implemented to reduce the risk that the bridge will experience a failure. The moveable span bridge, which is more than a century old, hosts approximately 450 trains per day and the aging mechanical components sometimes malfunction while opening and closing for maritime traffic.

The NPRM would extend and the existing restrictions while the U.S. Coast Guard finalizes the rule. Comments on the NPRM must be received by Dec. 6, 2019. 

“This is fantastic news for rail commuters and I applaud the Coast Guard for taking this significant step, but this is by no means the end of the line in our efforts to ensure we have a safe, reliable and modern transportation network,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ).  “While a permanent rush hour ban will alleviate pressure on the Portal Bridge and restore some reliability to the system, riders will never truly have peace of mind and faith in our rail system until the century-old, oft-malfunctioning span is replaced and a new Hudson rail tunnel built. We are sitting on a transportation ticking time bomb and must move forward on Gateway without further delay.”

Results of a study conducted by the Northeast Corridor (NEC) Commission that were released this summer found commuters who used the Portal Bridge and North River Tunnel, both part of the Gateway Program, experienced nearly 2,000 lost hours in extra transit time between 2014 and 2018. The study found that even when the Portal Bridge closed properly, regular openings of the bridge for marine traffic and testing resulted in more than 1,000 delays on 230 days between 2014 and 2018.

“As owner and operator of the existing Portal Bridge, Amtrak appreciates the leadership of Sen. Menendez and the U.S. Coast Guard in seeking to make permanent the rule restricting bridge openings to non-rush hours,” said Amtrak Chief Operating & Commercial Officer Stephen Gardner.  “The new Portal North Bridge will have much higher clearance over the river, negating the need to open and close, and representing the best and most equitable way to meet the needs of all users of the Hackensack River.”

New Jersey Transit President and CEO Kevin Corbett also commended Sen. Menendez for his work on the bridge restrictions and they would improve commutes for those who depend on the Portal Bridge everyday.

“Last month, we submitted our revised financial plan to the [Federal Transit Administration] to advance the construction of a modern replacement for this 109-year-old single point of failure on the Northeast Corridor. We eagerly await FTA approval to move this critical, shovel-ready project forward, which is the ultimate solution to the conflict with marine traffic,” said Corbett.

NJ Transit in partnership with Amtrak is the sponsor of the project to replace the Portal Bridge. NJ Transit says the revised plan makes more local money available for the project while keeping costs in check.

A failure on the bridge can cause cascading delays throughout the entire Northeast Corridor, which is why restrictions on maritime traffic that reduce the bridge’s movement are a good risk mitigation move until a new bridge can be constructed.

“Restricting the hours of operation at Portal Bridge so that the 109-year-old structure only opens outside of rush hour is a common sense solution that will directly benefit rail riders today,” Jerry Zaro, chairman of Gateway Development Corp., said.  “We thank Senator Menendez for his leadership on this issue as well as his steadfast support on all matters relating to Gateway. We also applaud the Coast Guard for taking this step while we continue working toward the real long-term solution—a high-level fixed bridge that does not have to open and close.”

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Group Editorial Director

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine and group editorial director of the Infrastructure and Aviation Group at Endeavor Business Media. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the editorial direction of the group and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.