OP-ED: Amtrak NEC Portal Bridge Project progress is a glass 25 percent full

May 24, 2024
Work needs to be completed on the Portal Bridge North, followed by the start and completion of Portal Bridge South.

Amtrak and New Jersey Transit (NJ Transit) proudly announcing that the Northeast Corridor (NEC) Portal North Bridge in New Jersey is 50 percent complete is really a glass one quarter full. Work needs to be completed on the Portal Bridge North, followed by the start and completion of Portal Bridge South. 

The Amtrak Inspector General Report on the Portal Bridge project noted that  "Amtrak staffing of the project has at times been insufficient."  This may be an early warning of problems ahead. The Queens, New York Harold Interlocking work as part of the $11.6 billion New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) East Side Access to Grand Central Madison completion was delayed more than one year due to insufficient Amtrak Force Account and Track Outages. It is also troubling that there is no public schedule for budget, funding source(s), timetable for advancement, including advertising, awarding of bids, notice to proceed for construction, followed by completion for Portal Bridge South. 

How can Amtrak provide sufficient numbers of employees to work on several key state of good repair and system expansion projects on the NEC while supporting work on both Portal Bridge projects all at the same time? The only way to validate that both Portal Bridge North and South will be completed on time and within budget is an independent review of Amtrak's resources. This would include a detailed review of Amtrak's resource loaded annual Master Force Account (its own work force) and Track Outage Plans for all capital and maintenance work in 2024 and coming years on the NEC.  This would tell riders, taxpayers, Amtrak advocates, elected officials and funding agencies such as the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA) that the railroad has the necessary resources to get the job done right. 

The same Amtrak resources for both the Portal North and Portal South bridges are also committed to other projects all along the NEC, between Washington D.C., and Boston, Mass., for years to come. Three of these in the Metro New York area include the $16.8 billion Phase One Gateway Tunnel (primarily work on the new tunnels and access to adjacent portals on both the New Jersey and New York side of the Hudson River),  $3.1 billion MTA Metro-North Rail Road Bronx East Penn Station Access and $1.6 East River Tunnel (access to Penn Station Manhattan from Queens).   This does not include ongoing routine maintenance at Penn Station Newark, Penn Station New York, Hudson and East River tunnels used by LIRR, NJ Transit, Amtrak and starting in the fall of 2027 by Metro North Rail Road, $2 billion Maryland Susquehanna River Bridge, $4.7 billion, 1.4 mile Baltimore Potomac Tunnel, $827 million Connecticut River Bridge and other stations, tracks, bridges, tunnels and facilities along the NEC.  

Amtrak and NJ Transit riders, taxpayers, project advocates, elected officials and funding agencies such as the FRA and FTA need to see this information to determine if both NJ Transit and Amtrak have the resources and technical capacity to complete this project on time and within budget. 

About the Author

Larry Penner

Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously served as a former director for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office of Operations and Program Management. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for New Jersey Transit, New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, NYC Transit bus, subway and Staten Island Railway, Long Island and Metro North railroads, MTA Bus, NYCDOT Staten Island Ferry along with 30 other transit agencies in New York and New Jersey.