SECAUCUS — It’s fitting that a man remembered as Mr. Transportation took his final trip to Washington aboard an Amtrak train Wednesday.
U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg was remembered at his funeral at a New York City synagogue by admirers including Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and several of Lautenberg’s children and grandchildren. They spoke of his drive to fight for what he believed, whether on the Senate floor or around the dinner table, up until his death Monday at 89 of complications from viral pneumonia.
“He never quit anything. He never gave up. He never gave in,” Biden told the 1,100 mourners.
Perhaps Lautenberg’s chief cause was mass transit, for which he worked to secure hundreds of millions of dollars during his 30 years in two stints in the Senate. He spearheaded legislation that revitalized a beleaguered Amtrak and other passenger rail systems, authorizing money to increase high-speed rail and other initiatives.
“If it wasn’t for Frank, Amtrak wouldn’t be what it is today. That’s not an exaggeration,” Biden said.
Lautenberg’s casket was sent after the service to Washington via the Northeast Corridor rail tracks he fought for years to upgrade. His body will lie in repose in the Senate chamber and he will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Noting he himself made more than 8,000 Amtrak trips as a senator, Biden drew laughs when he recounted how he once rushed from the Senate to catch the train, only to have a conductor tell him, “It’s OK — we’re holding it for Lautenberg.”
Lautenberg’s commitment to Amtrak was a theme that emerged in other eulogies during his funeral.
His son, Josh, said he was upset about losing his father, but added that he was “just as upset for the people at Amtrak. He was their best friend.”
After the funeral, Lautenberg’s body was taken to Frank R. Lautenberg Secaucus Junction Station, which Congress voted to name for him in 2000. A brief ceremony in the station’s rotunda honored him, and then an honor guard of police officers, bagpipers and drummers escorted the casket to a platform. Officers stood at attention as his flag-draped coffin was pushed onto the baggage car of a private Amtrak train. Lautenberg’s widow looked into the car where her husband’s casket was loaded, and finally his family boarded two passenger cars.
“He is, and was, Mr. Transportation,” New Jersey’s other senator, Robert Menendez, said Monday, choking up as he spoke. “If you think about mass transit as a whole, gotta be thinking about Frank Lautenberg.”
Besides trains, Lautenberg also worked to change the nation’s highways and airports. He sponsored legislation raising the drinking age to 21 and threatened to withhold federal highway funding from states that did not comply.
Lautenberg’s daughter Lisa Lautenberg Birer lost her voice at the funeral and had her speech read by her own daughter. She joked she lost 300 friends in college because “Dad raised the drinking age.”
Her father also was the driving force behind the law that banned smoking on most U.S. flights. He introduced an amendment, later signed into law, that requires the nation’s runways to improve safety standards by 2015 and filibustered a bill that prevented the nation’s air traffic controllers from being privatized.
But Lautenberg will best be remembered for his contribution to rail service. It’s the form of transportation that ferried the poor son of a Paterson silk worker who died at 43 out of the area for the first time when he joined the Army. And the rail system said it was honored to carry Lautenberg back to Washington one last time.
“I got on a troop train, after a few weeks of basic training,” Lautenberg said in a Rutgers University oral history recorded in 2005. “Got on the train; we go to Camp Crowder, Missouri. This is the kid who hadn’t been outside the, say, New Jersey and New York City.”
At his funeral Wednesday, Lautenberg was remembered as someone who never gave up on something he believed in, starting when he was a child in Paterson.
“He came out fighting, and he never stopped,” Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove told mourners.
However, one of Lautenberg’s last major transportation initiatives met with defeat. He secured $3 billion to help pay for a new rail tunnel between New Jersey and New York City, only to see Gov. Chris Christie kill the project in 2010 due to anticipated cost overruns.
The dispute led to some harsh public comments. Lautenberg called the cancellation of the project “one of the biggest policy blunders in New Jersey’s history,” and later called Christie “the king of liars"; Christie called Lautenberg a “partisan hack” who should retire. Undaunted, Lautenberg threw his support behind a new tunnel project for which he secured funding for design and engineering work.
While Lautenberg’s support on transportation will be missed, his influence will continue to be felt, Amtrak chairman of the board Anthony Coscia said.
“Fortunately in 2013 there are many people in the House, in the Senate and the president himself who are big supporters of Amtrak and the next generation of passenger rail,” he said.
“The fact we have such a deep bench to go to is part of Frank Lautenberg’s legacy.”