With COVID-19 economic impacts accelerating in the U.S., the Trump Administration has decided that a long-stalled Northeast U.S. rail infrastructure project could be one stimulus.

In a key step for the project caught for years in federal-state funding battles, including with the current administration, the Federal Transit Administration approved on June 19 nearly $767 million in U.S. funding for the Portal North Bridge replacement in northern New Jersey to advance to the engineering phase and start construction.

FTA's elevation of the project came in a letter to New Jersey Transit, which is managing the estimated $1.8-billion project to replace the  deteriorating 110-year-old swing bridge on the heavily used rail line, in conjunction with partner Amtrak, which owns the bridge span and track. Officials estimate that about 200,000 riders a day cross the bridge

In a revised plan, the project must "demonstrate financial capacity to cover an unexpected cost increase or funding shortfall," said FTA. The state and Amtrak will fund the remainder. The Federal Railroad Administration recently awarded another $55 million in federal funding to Amtrak for the project.

The FTA funding action follows by several days a tweet by President Donald Trump of his "authorization to proceed," after a dinner with New Jersey Gov Phil Murphy, who himself tweeted having "made the case [for project funding] directly."

NJ Transit CEO Kevin Corbett said the authorized move into engineering "is the next step before the Full Funding Grant Agreement and getting shovels in the ground for this project of national significance.” 

Amtrak, which now faces a major revenue shortfall due to COVID-19 ridership falloff, said it "deeply appreciates the strong partnership with NJ Transit, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Transit Administration on this critical project," and credited New York and New Jersey politicians "for their continued support and advocacy for finally fixing this critical single-point of failure on the nation’s busiest railroad.”

The FTA action "virtually assures" the bridge project will get a full funding grant agreement, Amtrak board Chairman Anthony Coscia told North Jersey online.

Portal North Bridge project funding potential got a boost in February when FTA raised its funding grant rating to medium-high.

It is part of the larger planned Gateway project that includes the planned two-track Portal South Bridge, for which an environmental review and final design is not yet complete.

Gateway also involves controversial construction of a new two-tunnel rail crossing under the Hudson River into New York, which was not addressed by FTA. The estimated $12-billion project remains low-rated by the agency and stalled in its federal funding quest, despite completion of its design phase and environmental approvals received several years ago.

The bridge construction project will be about 2.44 miles, including a 3,660-ft approach span located on the west side of the Hackensack River, a 2,540-ft-long approach span on the east side and a 1,200-ft long center span crossing directly over the waterway.

The new fixed-span bridge will double existing underclearance to about 500 ft. The old steel bridge has a 300-ft swing span that must open and close to marine traffic, which has caused extensive rail delays. The new bridge is expected to increase capacity by 30%.

Steven M. Cohen, chairman of the Gateway Development Corp., which oversees the entire Gateway program, termed the Portal move "a huge step" for riders and as a regional and national economic boost. “What’s good for Portal is good for the Hudson Tunnel Project as well," he said. 

"Now, we need to move forward with the entire Gateway program," said Greg Lalevee, business manager of operating engineers' Local 825, based in Springfield, N.J. "We have waited far too long to begin with these urgently-needed projects, and we urge the federal government to recognize the importance of building new Hudson River tunnels and overhauling our rail system far beyond the Portal Bridge."