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Amtrak's Achilles Heel, Infrastructurally Speaking

Aging, obsolete, and deteriorating bridges affect both road and rail. The 104-year-old Portal Bridge, a swing bridge over the Hackensack River in New Jersey that frequently fails to close properly, tops Amtrak's list for replacement.
December 2, 2014, 7am PST | Irvin Dawid
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With the Portal Bridge in the background, Amtrak President Joseph H. Boardman told 60 Minutes' reporter Steve Kroft in a recent show on failing infrastructure, "This is the Achilles Heel we have on the Northeast Corridor (and it's) the busiest in the Western Hemisphere for train traffic." The bridge is located between the New Jersey towns of Kearny and Secaucus.

David Porter of the Associated Press (appearing in The Washington Post) notes that between Amtrak and NJ Transit, up to 200,000 passengers are subjected to delays two or three times a week when the trains are delayed when the bridge swings open to accommodate passing barge traffic on the Hackensack River below them. The delays are exacerbated due to the bridge's age as the rails don't connect exactly when swung back, according to Drew Galloway, Amtrak’s chief of planning and performance for the corridor.

"At the end of the day it’s a choke point or a lifeline to the region, a region that produces 20 percent of GDP for the nation,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and current chairman of the Senate subcommittee on housing, transportation and community development.

In 2012, one delay was for two hours, "stranding passengers on scores of trains," wrote Matt Sledge of the Huffington Post. "The incident highlighted Amtrak's dependence on aging bridges pressed into service well past their expiration dates along its much traveled Northeast Corridor line."

Unlike major projects such as the Amtrak Gateway tunnels under the Hudson River (under another life known as Access to the Region's Core or ARC) estimated to cost $16 billion and take seven years at a minimum to build, the Portal Bridge replacement can be had for a mere $940 million, though an earlier New York Times article pegs the price at $900 million, and take less than four years to build according to Porter.

Unlike ARC, which Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) canceled in Oct. 2010, the governor said the following year that "he had let federal officials know that New Jersey was prepared to contribute a 'significant amount of money' toward a new bridge," wrote Patrick McGeehan of The New York Times in September.

While Porter writes, "Hope may be on the horizon," this reader doesn't feel convinced.

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Published on Saturday, November 15, 2014 in AP via The Washington Post
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