U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg is being remembered as a champion of the environment, the poor and public health, but colleagues say one of his most critical roles for New Jersey business was his advocacy for transportation investment — and for rail transit, in particular.
Lautenberg, the former Automated Data Processing Inc. chief executive who spent nearly decades representing New Jersey in the Senate, died Monday morning of complications from viral pneumonia. He was 89.
"He was unique," said Martin Robins, director emeritus of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University. "I don't know of another senator who had a greater understanding and a greater passion about saving and then nurturing and then improving inter-city rail."
Robins said Lautenberg was a key advocate for rail at a time when both Amtrak and NJ Transit were in a constant battle for funding.
Tom Bracken, president and CEO of the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, said Lautenberg understood the importance of the Northeast Corridor's rail infrastructure.
That corridor "is where the vast majority of the business in the U.S. is done," Bracken said. "It's a vital link for us in the business area, and again he fought very hard to strengthen that."
In recent years, Lautenberg advocated for the trans-Hudson Access to the Region's Core, or ARC, tunnel, a project that would have greatly increased rail capacity between New Jersey and New York.
Gov. Chris Christie canceled the project in 2010 over fears the Garden State would end up footing the bill for cost overruns on the multibillion-dollar public works project.
"Governor Christie's decision came as a huge surprise and shock," Robins said. "Senator Lautenberg was totally perplexed and angered by what happened."
In comments Monday morning, Christie praised Lautenberg as a "fighter."
"It's no mystery that Senator Lautenberg and I didn't always agree. In fact, it probably is more honest to say we very often didn't agree," Christie said. "But never was Senator Lautenberg to be underestimated as an advocate for the causes that he believed in and as an adversary in the political world. "
After the project was canceled, Lautenberg and others began advocating for a smaller trans-Hudson project, the Gateway Tunnel.
Just last week, Lautenberg announced the U.S. Department of Transportation had allocated $185 million in Hurricane Sandy relief funding to protect rail tunnels beneath Hudson Yards, in Manhattan. The project will also have the effect of preserving the rights-of-way needed to connect the Gateway project to New York's Penn Station.
In his announcement of the funding, Lautenberg called the Gateway tunnel "the most important transportation project in our region."
Robins said Lautenberg's passing will be a blow to Gateway.
"What we're losing is our state's foremost spokesman on this project," he said. "It doesn't mean the project is dead, but it certainly makes it even harder."
Lautenberg's role as a spokesman for the state had been diminished in recent months as the senator's health declined. Still, Bracken said Lautenberg was a strong advocate for the state's economy, including helping push for passage of federal aid after Sandy.
Bracken said Lautenberg was eager to speak to the business community. When the chamber eliminated the speaking slots for the state's U.S. senators at last year's Walk to Washington train ride and dinner, Lautenberg was displeased.
"Senator Lautenberg was very vocal with me and telling me how troubling that was to him, because he enjoys speaking to the business community," Bracken said.
The chamber reversed course this year, inviting Lautenberg and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-Hoboken) to address the crowd of business leaders. Though he had been in poor health, Lautenberg didn't miss the opportunity.
It ended up being one of his last public appearances.
"The fact that he made an effort to get there showed you how much he respected the business community," Bracken said.