President Biden visits students, touts infrastructure plan during New Jersey visit

NORTH PLAINFIELD, New Jersey (WABC) -- Days before New Jersey's gubernatorial election, President Joe Biden visited the Garden State to support incumbent Governor Phil Murphy - but also to tout his infrastructure plan and the rest of his "Build Back Better" agenda.

Biden's first stop was the East End Elementary School in North Plainfield before a groundbreaking ceremony for the Portal North Bridge.

Part of the president's "Build Back Better" initiative includes lowering child care costs and making universal child care a reality.

Right now, only 35% of 3 and 4-year-olds are in public funded pre-K. "Build Back Better" would open it to every 3 and 4-year-old in the state and cut child care costs by more than half to low and middle income families.

The president and Murphy then turned their focus to transportation. They visited a New Jersey Transit maintenance yard in Kearny.

The state would receive more than $4 billion over five years to improve transportation. Experts say 25% of transit vehicles have already rolled past their prime.

Under "Build Back Better," New Jersey would receive nearly $8 billion for roads and bridges improvements, including building a new Portal North Bridge, which is an important part of the rail system.

The project will replace the original 110-year-old Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River with a higher bridge that will not have to open and close for river traffic.

It is expected to dramatically improve service and reliability on the Northeast Corridor for NJ Transit Amtrak customers.

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The Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River, which connects New Jersey to New York and points north and south, was built during the Taft administration and was considered state of the art at the time, Biden said.

"Now, it's been called something different: a choke point, a bottleneck, an Achilles heel of the entire Northeast corridor," Biden said.

The bridge swings open to allow boats to pass underneath but occasionally gets stuck and needs to be closed manually, sometimes by sledgehammer. Pre-pandemic, nearly 200,000 people and 450 trains crossed the bridge each day, and delays there can ripple up and down from Boston and Washington, D.C.

For riders, "the approach to the Portal Bridge often comes with a crossing of fingers, maybe a prayer" that things go smoothly, Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said before Biden's remarks.

The bridge is part of the Gateway project, a broader effort to modernize and increase rail service in the New York metro region and which also includes a plan to build a new, $10 billion rail tunnel under the Hudson River and expand New York's Penn Station. New Jersey Transit and Amtrak are leading the project.

An infrastructure bill would help fund those projects and others, New Jersey Transit CEO Kevin Corbet said.

"We're the center of global commerce and capitalism, yet we're relying on late 1800s and early 1900s infrastructure, so that'll really allow projects like the tunnel and Penn expansion to happen," he said.

Former President Barack Obama was on the campaign trail with Murphy over the weekend.
"If you elect him, Phil's gonna work to make health care and housing more affordable," Obama said. "He's going to invest in clean energy. He's going to do what it takes to keep people safe and help New Jersey come out of the pandemic stronger than before."

The governor's Republican challenger, Jack Ciattarelli, doesn't seem bothered by the high-profile visits.

"It's Joe Biden, they're bringing in Kamala Harris," said Ciattarelli. "Guys, he can bring in the ghost of FDR. We're winning on November 2nd!"

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(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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