Biden calls on Congress to pass infrastructure bill, touting new Portal Bridge construction

By: - October 25, 2021 6:52 pm

President Joe Biden gives a speech on his Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal and Build Back Better Agenda at the NJ Transit Meadowlands Maintenance Complex on October 25, 2021 in Kearny. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden kicked off the week in New Jersey with Gov. Phil Murphy and other state officials to celebrate the impending construction of the new Portal Bridge, with Biden using the trip to deliver remarks on the $1 trillion infrastructure bill and spending plan that are stalled in Congress.

Speaking in front of three NJ Transit locomotives at the Meadowlands Maintenance Complex in Kearny, Biden stressed the importance of passing the infrastructure bill, which earmarks at least $12 billion for the Garden State, and the separate spending bill, which is focused on social programs like universal pre-k and free community college, among other items.

“These bills are not about left versus right, or moderate versus progressive or anything that pits one American against another. These bills are about competitiveness versus complacency. They’re about expanding opportunity, not opportunity denied. They’re about leading the world or continuing to let the world pass us by,” said Biden.

“Let’s get this done,” he added.

The infrastructure bill has passed the U.S. Senate but a vote in the House remains unclear. A group of conservative Democrats want it passed immediately, but other members of the party say if they pass it now, Congress may lose interest in the larger spending bill. That measure’s proposed $3.5 trillion cost is being slashed during negotiations between the Biden administration and members of Congress.

To a crowd of dozens of labor leaders, state officials, and Congressional representatives, Biden noted the importance of replacing the Portal Bridge, a Hackensack River crossing built 110 years ago when William Taft was president.

The existing bridge carries as many as 200,000 commuters in and out of New York daily, and often gets stuck after swinging up to let ships pass. Of the 100 times it opens annually, the bridge gets stuck 15% of the time, Biden said. When it gets stuck, laborers sometimes have to slam it back into place with sledgehammers.

“When the Portal Bridge was built, it was state of the art, and it was — 110 years ago. Today, it’s been called something different, a chokepoint, a bottleneck, an Achilles’ heel to the Northeast Corridor,” Biden said in his speech. “Since the Portal Bridge was built, it has become the busiest rail span in the entire Western Hemisphere. Today, we are moving forward on a new bridge so that it will be higher over the water, so it won’t need to open and close, and allow us to increase speed, safety, efficiency, and capacity.”

NJ Transit’s board approved a $1.6 billion contract to build the new bridge earlier this month. It is expected to open to train traffic starting in 2025. The state and federal governments are kicking in to pay the bill.

Monday’s event was not billed as a campaign event for Murphy, who is seeking voter approval for a second term next week, but Biden used his remarks to give a nod to Murphy’s progressive policies, like paid family leave and more affordable college tuition. Murphy responded with praise for Biden.

“There are few individuals who understand the importance of ensuring modern, safe, and reliable transportation infrastructure more than you,” Murphy said to the president.

Biden also visited third graders at East End Elementary School in North Plainfield, where he touted the spending bill’s funding for universal preschool and expanded child care. According to pool reports, a group of protestors gathered outside, holding signs and shouting, “You’re a loser!” at Biden.

Biden’s visit was another high-profile appearance for Murphy just days before Election Day, when he will face GOP candidate Jack Ciattarelli. Biden’s wife, Jill, has also visited New Jersey recently, as has Douglas Emhoff, Vice President Kamala Harris’ husband. On Saturday, former President Barack Obama stumped for Murphy in Newark.

New Jersey is only one of two states with a gubernatorial race, and Republicans are hoping victories here and in Virginia may portend bad news for Biden and Democrats ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

Republicans said the president’s appearance is a sign Murphy is struggling.

“The president of the United States is coming in to talk about business. Yeah, sure. Right. If he called it a campaign event, it might even be more embarrassing,” said Bob Hugin, chair of the New Jersey GOP, on a conference call with reporters Monday morning.

The crowd at the Kearny event included U.S. Reps. Tom Malinowski, Josh Gottheimer, Donald Payne Jr., and Mikie Sherrill, and state Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin.

Nikita Biryukov contributed to this report. 

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.