There is more to the recent White House meeting between President Donald Trump and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy concerning federal funding for the Portal Bridge. Gov. Murphy was incorrect when he recently said, "The Portal Bridge has been granted official permission by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to enter into final design and engineering and this includes full federal funding."
He did not leave the White House meeting with a $766-million federal check in hand toward paying for the $1.8-billion Portal Bridge. There is no legal commitment at this point in time for federal funding. All that has been approved is permission to enter final design and engineering. This is only the second of three critical milestones for the federal New Starts Core Capacity funding process. The next step is for the FTA to approve completion of final design and engineering. This would result in moving into the third and final phase which is a formal discussion about approval of a Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) by FTA. This is the legal commitment for real federal dollars.
Financing the local share to cover any cost overruns for this project is still an open question. Currently, the local share is being financed by borrowing rather than hard cash. Still outstanding from the Portal Bridge project sponsor is the formal submittal of a revised financial plan. This would document the local sponsors financial capacity to cover any unexpected cost increase or funding shortfall. When did Gov. Murphy promise Washington that this key document will be submitted to FTA for formal review? The process for submittal and review by FTA could take several months or more. There is frequently a series of questions and request for additional information if the document doesn't pass muster. Based upon the past history of previous FTA Full Funding Grant Agreements, it is unrealistic to assume having just entered final design and engineering that a project would obtain approval of an FFGA from FTA within the same year with only six months remaining.
Larry Penner is a transportation historian and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for grants supporting billions in capital projects and programs on behalf of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, New York City Transit bus and subway, Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad, MTA Bus and NYC Department of Transportation.