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Trump administration pledges $766M for stalled Gateway rail bridge

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The Trump administration on Friday cleared a long-stalled railroad bridge project in New Jersey to advance toward construction and pledged $766.6 million in grant funding for the work — a significant victory for Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao approved the start of the engineering phase for the $1.87 billion Portal North, a replacement span for the two-track, swing-style Portal Bridge that had become a major bottleneck on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the Federal Transit Administration said.

The FTA was in the process of notifying NJ Transit, the project sponsor, and others involved in the undertaking on Friday.

“FTA will continue to work with New Jersey Transit (NJT) as it progresses toward full completion of the requirements in law, needed to receive a” full-funding agreement, an FTA spokesperson said in a statement.

Background: The existing Portal Bridge, which is 110 years old and carries about 450 Amtrak and NJ Transit trains over the Hackensack River daily, had become a source of severe delays for trains running into and out of Manhattan. The bridge would often become stuck in the open position, cutting off the busiest rail corridor in America.

The replacement project had been held up in recent years as President Donald Trump had held up the Gateway Program, a $30 billion capital plan that includes the bridge and construction of a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River. The hold on the program was said to be linked to the president’s animosity for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a major booster of the initiative.

Murphy and his aides had lobbied the FTA — and Trump directly — to weigh the merits of the bridge projects on its own. The president, after having dinner with Murphy at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., last week tweeted that he would support the Portal Bridge.

Impact: The federal grant, if ultimately awarded, will cover almost half the transit-related costs of the Portal North.

The decision to advance the project and commit funding is a win for Murphy, as well as commuters and regular Amtrak riders. But moves made in recent years to reduce the need to open the bridge, especially during commuting hours, had sharply curtailed problems with blocked train traffic.

The action on the bridge also underscores the Trump administration’s ongoing refusal to advance the much more costly Hudson River tunnel project toward construction. The existing North River tunnels, also more than a century old, are in poor shape, continue to deteriorate and need to be repaired in coming years.

What’s next: The Portal North sponsors must still complete more steps to advance under the FTA’s Capital Investment Grants program, the FTA said. The Hudson Tunnel project remains stalled indefinitely and some transportation officials expect it may not move until the president leaves office.