01/05/2012 09:04 pm ET

Portal Bridge Jam Delays Northeast Riders, Highlights Rail Troubles

NEW YORK -- A critical bridge between Newark and New York could not be swiveled into place for more than two hours late Wednesday night, stranding passengers on scores of trains. The incident highlighted Amtrak's dependence on aging bridges pressed into service well past their expiration dates along its much traveled Northeast Corridor line.

The Portal Bridge, a span across the Hackensack River in New Jersey built in 1910 that swings open to accommodate boat traffic, was stuck in the "open" position from 9:20 p.m. to 11:45 p.m.

Owned by Amtrak but also accommodating NJ Transit commuter lines, the bridge is the only way for trains like the Acela to get from New York to Washington, D.C. All told, about 70,000 passengers pass over it every day, according to the Business Alliance for Northeast Mobility.

Passengers on six Amtrak trains and 50 NJ Transit trains were delayed before the bridge could be successfully swung into the "closed" position allowing train traffic to cross.

For years New Jersey politicians have sought to build a replacement for the structure, but those plans have stalled in the face of funding difficulties and political squabbles.

The bridge's closure was a short-term hassle for travelers, with many switching to buses or PATH trains to arrive their destinations, but the disruption highlights a long-term problem, said Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, a national urban planning initiative. For too long, she said, the country has underinvested in rail transportation while pumping billions into highways.

"Our rail network is not as redundant as our road network in the Northeast," Todorovich said. "There are not a lot of options when the critical crossings fail, and in this case there's no other option."

She and others would like to see the government invest money to tackle the $8.8 billion backlog of repairs on the Northeast Corridor line, the nation's busiest rail link, used by travelers between Washington and Boston. All up and down that line, similarly old and decaying bridges cause delays and inconvenience passengers, she said. But securing anywhere near that much money has proven to be a challenge for the government-owned Amtrak, which has found little sympathy from the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

Amtrak has thus far been tight-lipped about what caused the Portal Bridge malfunction. A derailment on the same bridge in 1996 injured 42 and caused $3.6 million in damage.

Spokesman Cliff Cole said that despite the bridge's age and history, problems like Wednesday night's have been rare lately. "From what I'm told," he said, "this is the first significant incident like this in the last two years. We've had some glitches of a minor nature."

Even when the bridge doesn't fail outright, it causes delays for trains approaching it from either side of the river, Todorovich said. NJ Transit had provided her with statistics showing that bridge delays added as much as 640 minutes for NJ Transit train travel in October 2011, she said.

"No one should be surprised when the bridge fails," she said. "We should be surprised that we haven't replaced it already."

There is a plan to replace the bridge, estimated to cost $1.3 billion in 2008, but so far only engineering designs have been drafted. Gaining federal support for a bridge replacement became complicated after N.J. Gov. Chris Christie killed in October 2010 the proposed Access to the Region's Core tunnel intended to cross under the Hudson River, citing fears of cost overruns. Federal officials became concerned about the New Jersey governor's commitment to major rail infrastructure projects.

Since then Amtrak has been pressing forward with plans for a Gateway Project, which would include a new tunnel to Manhattan from New Jersey and potentially a Hackensack River bridge.