[As written by Kathryn Wolfe and Scott Wong in Politico]
Amtrak and transportation safety advocates have lost one of their biggest defenders, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died Monday morning at the age of 89.
The New Jersey Democrat, who chaired a key Senate Commerce panel on transportation and safety, played a role in pushing through major safety improvements across most modes of transportation, touching the lives of practically every American in the process.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) praised Lautenberg as a “relentless warrior” without whom “our transportation system in the Northeast and the nation would not be as up to date and efficient.” Lautenberg’s passing was a “gut shot,” Schumer said, even though he’d been sick for some time.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) called his longtime colleague a “fighter until the bitter end.”
Lautenberg’s long list of achievements includes authoring the 1984 law that set the minimum drinking age at 21, as well as landmark legislation lowering the legal blood-alcohol limit to 0.08 percent. He also had a hand in regulations to combat human fatigue and hours of service requirements for various transportation industries, and has been a tireless advocate against bigger, heavier commercial trucks on the nation’s highways.
He also joined in the fight to fend off a George W. Bush-administration attempt to privatize air traffic controllers. And Lautenberg, who was once a heavy smoker, was instrumental in enacting legislation to ban smoking on commercial airplanes.
And though advocates for the issues Lautenberg championed have known since February that he planned to retire from Congress next year, the sped-up timetable spurred by his death from complications due to pneumonia may set them back on their heels.
His absence will be most keenly felt in the transportation world in the upcoming fights over whether to allow heavier trucks to use the highway system and as Republicans gear up for a new attempt to privatize portions of Amtrak.
Ed Wytkind, president and CEO of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department, said Lautenberg, the Senate’s last World War II veteran, didn’t think twice about testifying in 2011 before the GOP-led House Transportation Committee to warn against the dangers of underfunding or privatizing the rail network’s popular Northeast Corridor.
“His history and legacy is really all about transportation. He was one of the real guardians in the Senate of public transportation, particularly of Amtrak,” said Wytkind, who first met Lautenberg more than two decades ago.
“At a time when we are facing so many budget challenges in the nation, Frank was such an unyielding champion of fully funding the entire Amtrak network. He was also unyielding in his views that the workers at Amtrak should be treated fairly,” Wytkind said.
Even though Lautenberg has been absent from Congress for the majority of the 113th Congress, he has still maintained an active messaging presence on transportation issues, including calling the I-5 bridge collapse on May 23 “simply unacceptable” and pushing for passage of his infrastructure bank bill, authored with Sen. Jay Rockefeller.
And when he announced his retirement in February, he vowed to use his remaining time to redouble efforts on his marquee issues, saying at the time in a statement that his retirement did not mark the “end of anything, but rather the beginning” of a two-year push on his legislative priorities.
As recently as May 14, a Lautenberg spokesperson told POLITICO the senator was “still engaged day to day” with various legislative issues; his last bill, related to education, was introduced on May 23.
Nevertheless, his absence this year has been felt on the Hill. Following a train derailment earlier this month that sent a Metro-North commuter train careening into another one, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he would chair a hearing into the disaster in Lautenberg’s stead.
Allies hailed Lautenberg as a “true legend” when it came to highway safety issues. Beyond his involvement in drinking age and BAC laws and federal zero tolerance laws for youth, he more recently pushed for the Drunk Driving Repeat Offender Prevention Act. The legislation would pressure states to force all convicted drunken drivers to use an ignition-interlock device anytime they get behind the wheel.
“His leadership helped lead a nation to dramatic reductions in drunk driving deaths and injuries. Our thoughts are with Sen. Lautenberg’s family during this time,” MADD National President Jan Withers said in a statement.
Even the trucking lobby, with whom Lautenberg would frequently clash over truck weight limits and other issues, praised the senator’s advocacy for public safety.
“Sen. Lautenberg was a passionate and tireless advocate for transportation, and in particular of making our roads, bridges, railways and skies safer to travel,” said Bill Graves, president and CEO of the American Trucking Association, which represents the nation’s biggest trucking companies.
“He served his state and his nation with distinction and he will be missed,” Graves said.
Lautenberg’s death also has implications for the leadership roster of the Senate Commerce Committee, which holds much of Congress’s jurisdiction over transportation safety issues. The next most senior lawmakers are Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.). But all of them already have other committee leadership responsibilities, and they are unlikely to give them up to take the gavel of Lautenberg’s subcommittee.
The next most likely senator would be Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who may want to hop from the chairmanship of the subcommittee in charge of consumer product safety and insurance. A McCaskill spokesman said it’s too early yet to discuss potential committee shuffles.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, with whom Lautenberg tangled over Christie’s decision to yank funding for a rail tunnel project that was to connect New Jersey and Manhattan under the Hudson River, will appoint Lautenberg’s temporary replacement.