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Years in the Making: Replacing New Jersey’s Portal Bridge

Apr 6, 2022
Portal Bridge

The 112-year-old, swing-style Portal Bridge, a rail bridge that spans the Hackensack River from Kearny to Secaucus, NJ, is notorious for failing to close properly  for marine traffic, delaying commuters and bringing Amtrak and NJ TRANSIT service to a standstill.

To improve capacity and allow for increased speeds, NJ TRANSIT selected STV, in a joint venture with AECOM, to provide construction management (CM) and inspection services for the vital replacement of this structure with a fixed, tied-arch bridge with an increased height to prevent the source of delays.

The project recently reached a major milestone with its groundbreaking in the fall 2021. However, STV has played a key part in the team making this project a reality for years. Beginning in 2016, STV engaged with NJ TRANSIT to perform preconstruction and constructability reviews. The project team also supervised advanced construction of a new Northeast finger pier along the Hackensack River, temporary fiber optics poles, and a 400-foot retaining wall near Secaucus Junction to facilitate the construction of new bridge and track realignment to the north.

More recently, STV supported the project designer with risk analysis, bid packaging and staging analysis; construction scheduling; preparation of special provisions; bid document preparation; construction estimating; disadvantaged business enterprise (DBE) outreach and other related services in advance of construction.

Portal Bridge Construction

“The bridge is located within a corridor that’s roughly 2.4 miles in length, serving the most active passenger rail line in North America,” said Jim Takacs, P.E., CCM, senior associate, and deputy project manager. “This project requires complex construction management, phasing and staging to maintain the active rail service while the bridge replacement is underway.”

Safety, in and around the construction site, is a top priority for the client and project team. As part of its scope of services, STV will review safety plans related to the active rail line using the bridge, as well as the boats and barges that transport construction crews and materials from the Hackensack River to the site.

Additionally, with roughly 70% of the project area situated in marshland on both sides of the river, STV has incorporated key environmentally friendly features into the project: “We’ve created a schedule to construct cofferdams and other in-water structures so work can continue throughout the fish spawning season’s 4-month construction restriction,” Takacs added.

Landside, there are equivalent challenges for the CM. With just one 5-acre piece of land available for staging and storage of equipment and materials along the nearby Belleville Turnpike, STV’s team is investigating other options to accommodate acquiring additional off-site areas for the contractor to use.  

Portal Bridge Construction

“We worked with the design team to provide multiple access roads, work platforms and a second finger pier on the northeast side of the river for material storage, staging and site access,” Takacs said. “We want the contractor to have as many options as possible to safely mobilize material, equipment and manpower to the site and new bridge.”

Despite these challenges, “STV’s extensive bridge and rail CM experience makes us uniquely qualified for this effort,” said William “Bill” Brooks, P.E., business unit leader, and vice president.We’ve helped clients deliver some of the most complex projects in the country, and I’m very excited to be working alongside NJ TRANSIT and Amtrak on this vital link on the Northeast Corridor.”

Since the Portal Bridge was originally constructed, it has become the busiest rail span in the entire Western Hemisphere. At peak usage, over 450 trains pass over the bridge every day carrying more than 200,000 Amtrak and NJ TRANSIT customers according to the Federal Transit Administration.

“We understand the critical importance of this project, not just for New Jersey but for the entire region,” Brooks said.

President Joe Biden speaking at Portal Bridge
Photo courtesy of Gov. Phil Murphy Flickr:

In October of this year, President Joe Biden visited New Jersey and used the bridge as an example when discussing the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a.k.a. the bipartisan infrastructure bill. “The infrastructure bill is about rebuilding the arteries of America,” Biden said during the ceremony. “And the Portal Bridge project shows why investments like this are so important. When the Portal Bridge was built, it was state of the art…Today it’s been called something different: a choke point, a bottleneck, an Achilles’ Heel of the Northeast Corridor.”