Trump Administration Flashes New Caution Light for NJ Bridge Funds
Justice Department legal opinion could hold up Portal Bridge replacement
The Trump Administration last month seemed to have opened the way for federal funding for the proposed $1.6-billion Portal Bridge project, which would replace a critical link in the New York City area's commuter rail infrastructure that carries 200,000 passengers a day between New Jersey and Manhattan.
But an opinion by the Justice Dept.'s Office of Legal Counsel, posted on the department's website last week, now injects some uncertainty into a portion of the funding to replace the deteriorating 110-year-old bridge.
The legal counsel has written that New Jersey’s proposed diversion of a portion of its annual payment to Amtrak to the Gateway Development Commission, established by New York and New Jersey to build the new bridge and a planned $12--billion-dollar tunnel under the Hudson River, violates a federal law passed in 1997 that "prohibits states from carrying out an interstate compact" using Amtrak funds.
The ruling opens a hole in the project's funding plan whose size is still unclear.
Last month, the bridge project had received a medium-high rating from the Federal Transit Administration, rendering it eligible for Core Capacity grant funding, while the more costly tunnel proposal languished. Both are considered vital to the New York City-area economic well-being.
Both the bridge and the tunnel are considered antiquated workhorses of the New York transportation infrastructure. Costly renovation work has recently begun in the 109-year-old tunnel, which had sustained damage during Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
The planned new Hudson River Tunnel, currently in preliminary engineering, received a “low” FTA rating on Feb. 10 based on scores for current financial conditions, funding commitments and reasonableness of financial plan.
There are questions about the significance of the new legal opinion for the Portal Bridge.
To the DOJ's legal counsel, the question is linked to whether the Gateway Development Corp. was created by an “interstate compact,” and if so, whether New Jersey Transit would be diverting “funds made available for Amtrak” to carry out a rail service project subject to the GDC’s authority.
That, in the counsel's opinion, would have violated the 1997 federal Amtrak reform bill.
New Jersey is using traditional debt financing to fund construction of the Portal Bridge. So it appears the Amtrak funds that are in question are not being used directly for the project's construction.
A spokesman for the corporation referred questions about the funding to New Jersey Transit.
In a March 6 statement, New Jersey Transit said it is reviewing the opinion and that it and Amtrak will continue to work closely with partners at the U.S. Dept. of Transportation to advance the project as quickly as possible.