New Jersey officials ask Coast Guard for relief from rail-bridge problems

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TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey’s governor and U.S. senators have asked the Coast Guard for relief from rules that require Amtrak to open a key Northeast Corridor bridge during rush-hour periods, in an effort to stop frequent delays to rail traffic.

The request by Gov. Phil Murphy and Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker was made in a Friday letter to the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, reports. It came after problems earlier in the week with the 111-year-old Portal Bridge, which crosses the Hackensack River near Secaucus, N.J., caused lengthy delays to NJ Transit commuter trains. [See “Bridge failure leads to NJ Transit commuter woes,” Trains News Wire, Oct. 31, 2018.] Twice on Oct. 30, the swing bridge failed to lock into place after being opened for ship traffic, the latest in a series of problems for the Amtrak-owned bridge.

The letter by the three officials notes that while current regulations bar the bridge from being opened from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays, “the current standard also includes a series of loopholes that weaken its effectiveness.” Specifically, the letter notes, maritime traffic can ask for the bridge to be opened during a 2-hour period in the morning rush and a 1-hour, 40-minute portion of the evening rush, if they provide a 1-hour notice. “Given the problems posed to commuters by the frequent Portal Bridge malfunctions,” they wrote, “we urge you to revise your regulations to eliminate these loopholes.”

The officials call this a short-term solution that can be mitigated by the building of a new $1.5 billion bridge, which will not need to be opened since it will pass 50 feet above the river. Design work for that bridge has been completed but the project is awaiting funding.

More than 400 trains a day use the current bridge.

— Updated 3:16 CST on Nov. 5 to clarify that Amtrak operates the bridge, but officials are hoping for a change in the rules requiring it to do so.

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