Skip to content

Posts from the "Frank Lautenberg" Category

1 Comment

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, Rail Champion, Dies at 89

It’s a sad day for Amtrak. New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg has died.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, pictured here in February, died yesterday at age 89. Photo from the Office of Frank Lautenberg

Lautenberg was a passionate champion of Amtrak and rail travel in general. Just a few months ago, he pledged that “improving passenger and high-speed rail service in America and on the Northeast Corridor is a top priority” for him.

Having battled stomach cancer, muscle fatigue and other ailments, Lautenberg announced in February that this would be his last term in the Senate, meaning he would leave office at the end of 2014. He had been largely absent from the Senate this year, returning dramatically in a wheelchair in April to cast his vote in favor of the failed gun control bill.

As we noted when he announced his retirement, Lautenberg wrote the 2008 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. The Secaucus Junction train station is named after him (though it only served New Jersey Transit, not Amtrak.)

He fought New Jersey Governor Chris Christie over the ARC tunnel, a rail improvement Lautenberg saw as essential for allowing the continued flow of commuters between New Jersey and New York under the Hudson River. The Gateway tunnel project, a substitute for ARC, is under development and just received a promise of $185 million in federal funds.

Lautenberg’s dream of an intermodal freight policy is also on its way toward being realized, thanks to increased federal attention on creating a national freight strategic plan. Complete streets policies, which he consistently supported, are in place in nearly 500 communities around the country. His zeal to create a National Infrastructure Bank as a way to invite more private investors to partner with the government on infrastructure is still struggling for wide acceptance.

His advocacy for travelers knew no modal bounds. He authored the landmark 1989 law which banned smoking on airplanes and helped set 0.08 percent as the blood-alcohol level considered too intoxicated to drive. He pushed states to require repeat drunken drivers to have ignition locks in their cars.

The flag on the Capitol building is flying at half-mast today in Lautenberg’s honor. With his passing, the Senate is now comprised of 54 Democrats (including two independents who caucus with Democrats) and 45 Republicans. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, will appoint an interim replacement and schedule an election for Lautenberg’s seat.

2 Comments

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.

5 Comments

NJ Senator Lautenberg Introduces Bill to Limit Bridge and Tunnel Tolls

Last summer, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey raised EZPass tolls from $8 to cross a bridge into the city during peak hours to $9.50, with planned increases to $12.50 in a few years (cash tolls are increasing somewhat more). Tolls for five-axle trucks will rise as high as $125.

The hikes marked the first time the Port Authority had raised tolls since 2008, and the only the third since 2001. Nevertheless, congressional representatives from the area are making noise. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) teamed up today to announce a bill to increase federal oversight of road tolls.

The “Commuter Protection Act” would restore U.S. DOT’s power to determine whether tolls on interstate bridges and tunnels are “just and reasonable” and set lower maximum tolls if they deem it necessary. The agency had that power until 1987, when it was revoked during an era of deregulation. The bill would also require the Government Accountability Office to produce a report on the “transparency and accountability” of how toll rates are set.

“When it costs $12 to drive your car across a bridge in America [the rate for cash tolls], something is wrong,” Lautenberg said in a statement. “Commuters are suffering.”

Lautenberg has a strong pro-transit record, but in this case he may end up hurting transit by taking up the cause of constituents who drive into the city. For one thing, the tolls have led to a four percent drop in traffic across the Port Authority crossings, which is good news for bus speeds. Meanwhile, ridership on PATH trains has risen 3.7 percent.

It’s still an open question whether the final draft of the bill will consider transit a “just and reasonable” purpose for tolling funds. There is currently no legal definition of “just and reasonable.” Even if transit is covered, however, the bill could still do damage.

If the U.S. DOT were to actually intervene with the Port Authority, for instance, there would probably be less funding available for transit. Already, the Port Authority scrapped plans to build a much-needed new bus depot in Manhattan because Governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo scaled back the latest round of toll hikes.

Read more…