By Thomas K. Wright, Executive Director, RPA
RPA was saddened to learn of the loss of Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey's long-serving senator.
Among his many achievements, Sen. Lautenberg was an extraordinary advocate for mass transit. His leadership over four decades literally shaped the nation, the tri-state region and especially New Jersey for the better. He was a strong supporter of investment in mass transit along the Northeast Corridor. Without his early and committed support, rail ridership in the U.S. wouldn't be experiencing the extraordinary growth that it is today.
Sen. Lautenberg, a Democrat, also understood that protecting New Jersey's drinking water and quality of life meant reaching across the state borders and party lines to achieve results. He worked with New York Gov. George Pataki and New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, both Republicans, to help protect the 22,000 acres in Sterling Forest State Park in New York State. Together with Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen and others in Congress, he helped pass the Highlands Conservation Act, which has provided millions of dollars for additional conservation efforts throughout the region.
A former smoker, Mr. Lautenberg also led the successful fight in the late 1980s to ban smoking on all commercial airline flights, a milestone that most travelers take for granted today.
Many RPA staff enjoy the memories we have of the senator over his decades in public service.
I was an undergraduate summer intern working in his office on Capitol Hill in the 1980s. Sen. Lautenberg was facing a touch re-election fight against a strong challenger, Pete Dawkins. But he always had time for his interns, and made sure we were learning the ways of Washington (which back then that didn't seem like such a pejorative term). He fought for the causes he believed in — something that young staff members took to heart. And many of us went on to work in or with the public sector, inspired by his example.
He also was a magnanimous and generous man. Just two years ago, I was invited by the senator to testify before the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee on the need for a robust transportation bill with adequate funding for mass transit and Amtrak. And the end of a string of presentations, California Sen. Barbara Boxer remarked that I had been the only presenter willing to specify where new revenue sources should come from (increased gasoline taxes and user fees). She asked Sen. Lautenberg if I had learned to be bold from working in his office all those years ago.
No, Sen. Lautenberg graciously responded. The interns come to us that way.
Speaking for former interns, mass transit riders and civic organizations, Sen. Lautenberg will be missed. They don't make them like him anymore.