Sen. Frank Lautenberg, Rail Promoter, Announces Retirement

Yesterday afternoon, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, announced that Frank Lautenberg would return as chair of the committee’s Surface Transportation, & Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, & Security Subcommittee.

Lautenberg in Hoboken with DOT Secretary Ray LaHood last year. Lautenberg made two announcements today: his plans for the next two years in transportation, and his plans to retire after that. Photo: http://lautenberg.senate.gov/gallery/photodetails/03_19_12.cfmOffice of Sen. Frank Lautenberg

This afternoon at 2:00 p.m., Lautenberg issued a statement that “improving passenger and high-speed rail service in America and on the Northeast Corridor is a top priority that my Subcommittee will pursue aggressively.” That’s no surprise to anyone — Lautenberg is a strong voice for robust infrastructure spending, especially for intercity rail and urban transit.

And then, just about an hour after listing all the wonderful things he is going to do in this session to advance high-speed rail, fund Amtrak, and improve transit, Lautenberg sent another statement: He won’t return to the Senate in 2015.

No one will be shocked by this news. Lautenberg just turned 89 years old. He’s serving his fifth six-year term in the Senate. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a rock star of local politics, has made no secret of his plan to run for Lautenberg’s seat.

In 2008, Lautenberg wrote the law to increase Amtrak funding and create the nation’s high-speed rail grant program. In 2011, he got the Northeast Corridor designated as a federally-recognized high-speed rail corridor, which allowed Amtrak to receive $450 million in federal funding for high-speed rail upgrades benefitting New Jersey.

He did battle with his state’s governor, Chris Christie, who insisted on stopping progress on the ARC tunnel, which would have more than doubled the number of trains that could have been carried a day between New Jersey and New York under the Hudson River. In this session, he plans to promote the Gateway tunnel project, which is ARC 2.0. He’s already helped secure $15 million to get it started, and he’s working on getting another $20 million.

Lautenberg championed a freight policy that carries more goods on rail than trucks, helping legislate the eligibility of rail for federal freight funding. He supports complete streets. He and Sen. Rockefeller (who’s also retiring after this session) joined forces to get behind President Obama’s vision for a National Infrastructure Bank — an idea that still hasn’t gone anywhere, but not for lack of trying. 

Lautenberg’s zeal for passenger rail will be missed when he leaves, but at least he’s got two more years left as the boss of an important subcommittee for transportation issues. Lautenberg is also still on the Appropriations Committee and the Environment and Public Works Committee — two more perches from which he can influence transportation policy. We’ll be looking to him to make his mark on the rail reauthorization this year and the surface transportation bill next year.