NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — A bridge that’s more than a century old got stuck twice on Tuesday, causing major delays for NJ TRANSIT riders caught in the mix.
When the 107-year-old bridge over the Hackensack River gets stuck open, commuters also get stuck. Some waited over 90 minutes to catch their ride home, leaving many wondering why boats get the priority over rail riders.
The Amtrak-owned bridge opened when there were barely any cars or electricity. William Taft was president, and the Titanic was under construction. So far this year, it’s malfunctioned a total of five times.
NJ TRANSIT riders who spoke with CBS2 question why boats in the river take priority over the thousands of commuters who rely on the rails.
“It should have been changed 75 years ago,” commuter Ira Saltz said. “A lot more people are taking trains to get back and forth than there are boats.
Most tugboats and barges carrying trash and sludge use the narrow channel to get to and from Newark Bay. Every person responsible for the bridge and waterway have the same answer; there isn’t anything anyone can do.
“The way it works basically in terms of determining right-of way is that the law is written such that whoever is there first gets the right of way,” said Craig Shulz, Amtrak spokesperson for the Gateway Program. “The river was there before the railroad and therefore the boats get priority over the railroad.”
The United States Coast Guard ensures commerce can flow on the river. Boat travel restrictions were tried in 2004, reducing train delays from 31 to one during a three-month period.
A maritime expert says it would take coordination from both federal and state governments, and commissions to change passage times.
“It would be done by regulations, by the Coast Guard, they would need time to get public comments and input,” lawyer Jacob Shisha said. “It’s not always that easy, a lot of vessels are restricted by the tide, because of their draft. They can’t just go whenever they want.”
CBS2 asked Governor Phil Murphy to explain why an emergency declaration cannot be made to only move boats up and down the river after 8 p.m. to avoid busy commute times. He’s yet to respond. He has, in the past, blamed President Donald Trump for not funding the Gateway Tunnel and Bridge project long term.
In the short term, it turns out Trump may be the only official who can override maritime law and restrict bridge opening times. CBS2 didn’t immediately hear back from the White House regarding whether or not he can help.