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Posts from the "James Oberstar" Category

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Remembering Jim Oberstar, Architect of Federal Bike Funding Programs

Rep. Jim Oberstar, who died early Saturday morning, was an architect of the Safe Routes to School program. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/bikeportland/4973213624/in/photostream/##Jonathan Maus / Bike Portland##

Jim Oberstar, who died early Saturday morning, was an architect of the Safe Routes to School program. Photo: Jonathan Maus/Bike Portland

Rep. Jim Oberstar died peacefully in his sleep early Saturday morning at the age of 79. He represented Minnesota’s 8th Congressional district for 18 terms, from 1975 to 2011.

Oberstar served on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee the entire time, and as its chair for the last four years. He was known for his passion for bicycling as much as anything, and we have him to thank for the addition of biking and walking programs to the federal transportation program.

We’ve collected some memories of Oberstar from a few people who worked closely with him.

“I think our movement grew up a bit that day.”

Martha Roskowski, VP of Local Innovation, PeopleForBikes:

I feel very honored to have worked with Congressman Oberstar. He had a huge smile and gave great hugs and seemed to forgive me for not speaking French. He brought enthusiasm and brilliance and determination into everything he did.

Between 2002 and 2004, I was working in DC, running the America Bikes campaign to get good provisions for biking and walking into the federal transportation bill. We were going from TEA-21 to SAFETEA-LU. I worked closely with Congressman Oberstar and his staff on the bill. He was the ranking member on the House T&I Committee — Don Young from Alaska was the chair as the Republicans held the House. Despite being in the minority party, Congressman Oberstar wielded great power. He was an unabashed champion of transportation – freight, rail, transit, air, highways, bridges and to our great fortune, bikes. He brought biking into the mainstream of Congress and the nation with his insistence that it be integrated into the federal package.

One of his great gifts to the nation was the Safe Routes to School Program. He asked the America Bikes team to craft language and suggest a funding level, and he took it from there. He was one of the old guard of statesmen in Congress. He and Congressman Young did a lot of horse trading and negotiating back and forth to craft a bipartisan bill. But Congressman Oberstar was unwavering on Safe Routes and it was written into the House bill as proposed, with $1.5 billion over six years. The Senate bill had less funding, and in the end the program received $800 million in funding over the six years. The Congressman leaves behind many legacies, but one of the best is kids walking and biking to school today on safer sidewalks and better pathways in communities across the country.

In 2004, a Republican Congressman from Oklahoma named Ernest Istook made a run at the Transportation Enhancements program, threatening to defund it in Appropriations. As usual, we went running to our great champion, James Oberstar. But he told us, “Look, I can’t win this one for you. You need to decide if you’re in the big leagues or if you’re just a bunch of boy scouts.” I think our movement grew up a bit that day.

In the end, we found a champion on the Republican side, Tom Petri of Wisconsin, thanks to great work by Marianne Fowler of Rails-to-Trails. We met with Oberstar shortly before the floor vote and told Oberstar that Congressman Petri said he thought he had enough Republican votes to cover for a few Democrats who might not support the amendment. Oberstar pounded his fist on the table and vowed, “Every single Democrat will vote yes.” And they did. The program survived to fund great projects across the country for another six years.

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Lessons From the Former Chairman: Oberstar on Ending the Interstate Era

Streetsblog had a chance today to ask the former Democratic chief of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, about life since the 2010 election, when he lost by a hair to Republican Chip Cravaack. He said he’s spending his post-Congress time traveling to France, getting paid to say things he used to say for free, and telling his four kids and seven grandkids the story of his wife, who succombed to breast cancer 20 years ago.

We also asked him for his thoughts about some major themes in transportation today. 

Chairman Jim Oberstar calls transportation enhancements "the point of transformation" for transportation. Photo courtesy of Oberstar's office.

On the “dissipation” of high-speed rail funds:

We reshaped Amtrak in the 2008 authorization, designating 11 corridors and creating a mechanism by which there could be competition from private sources and from state consortia, with Amtrak, to provide the passenger rail service in a particular corridor.

At first, I didn’t like that idea, but I spent a lot of time talking to Mr. Mica about it and as we talked, I said, “You know, that’s beginning to make more sense. We ought to challenge Amtrak. That’s a good idea; let’s put this into the bill.” And then we got consensus that high-speed should be defined as 110 mph, and that was in the bill. And we got a bill that George Bush signed!

So there was a structure against which to pit [the $8.5 billion in stimulus dollars for high-speed rail]. I thought that was going to happen. Instead, it was all put up for competition for various states to come forward and put a proposal on the table.

Wisconsin, for example: to Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago. That should have been done as part of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Initiative, with Chicago as the hub, south to St. Louis, east through Detroit to Cleveland and eventually to Cincinnati, and west to Minneapolis-St. Paul. That would have been one very defensible, manageable anchor.

The Northeast Corridor could have been another important anchor. The west coast, which is already underway: a third anchor to this system. And then some other amounts in the other corridors, depending on proposals that they would have and should have submitted to DOT.

Allowing pieces to be bid or requested by states dissipated the critical mass of investment. And I’m not saying that in hindsight – that was my concern at the time.

On the attack on Transportation Enhancements in Congress:

Transportation Enhancements was the pivotal point of transformation at the end of the interstate era — an era in which travelers went where the road took them — to the era in which users of our system had a say in their quality of transportation and where that road should go in the future and how their transportation experience should be managed.

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And the Streetsies Go To…

Happy 2011! May this year bring peace, harmony, and a six-year transportation reauthorization.

The best part about 2011 is that it’s not 2010. Last year was a tough one at the federal level: constant extensions of both the transportation bill and the general budget, no progress on an adequate funding source for infrastructure investment, and then a bruising election in November.

We asked you, Streetsblog readers, to vote for the bests and worsts of 2010 in our annual Streetsie awards poll. You took time out of singing carols and making snow angels to cast your vote. Here’s what you said.

You’ll miss Jim Oberstar. The architect of the half-trillion-dollar infrastructure proposal that reformers still dream about – Rep. Jim Oberstar, the Minnesota Democrat who chaired the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure – lost his re-election bid by a hair.

"We'll Miss You Jim Oberstar!" say 86 percent of Streetsblog readers. Image: ##http://bikeportland.org/photos/album/72157624788750653/jim-oberstar-visits-beach-elementary-school.html##Bike Portland##

"We'll Miss You Jim Oberstar!" say 86 percent of Streetsblog readers. Image: Bike Portland

Oberstar secured funding for bicycle facilities when few on Capitol Hill wanted to talk about bikes. He told cyclists, “We’re going to convert America from the hydrocarbon economy to the carbohydrate economy.” He helped create the Safe Routes to School program and expand transit access to low-income communities. He helped level the playing field between transit and highway projects.

It’s not every day you find a champion like that on Capitol Hill.

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House Passes Extension of Transportation Reauthorization

Remember those heady days in mid-2009, when Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN) introduced an ambitious, half-trillion dollar reauthorization that would transform the country’s infrastructure?

Outgoing Transpo Committee Chair Jim Oberstar got what he wanted: a yearlong extension. (Though he would have preferred a six-year reauthorization.) Image: ##http://areavoices.com/CapitolChat/?blog=56262##Capitol Chatter##

Outgoing Transpo Committee Chair Jim Oberstar got what he wanted: a yearlong extension. (Though he would have preferred a six-year reauthorization.) Image: Capitol Chatter

What the House passed last night, as part of the continuing resolution that will keep the government running at current spending levels through the end of the fiscal year, was no transformational piece of legislation. Instead, it was a “clean” extension of the transportation bill with very few changes to the current spending levels. The current extension was set to expire at the end of the year.

Rep. Oberstar has been advocating for a yearlong extension and he supported yesterday’s bill:

An extension of current programs and funding levels is a far cry from my preferred approach to addressing the nation’s growing surface transportation challenges.  Meeting the overall needs of the system and developing a 21st Century surface transportation network worthy of being passed on to future generations can only be accomplished through the passage of a robust and transformational long-term surface transportation authorization act.

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Oberstar’s Final Words of Wisdom

Outgoing Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Jim Oberstar (D-MN) just wrapped up a roundtable conversation with reporters. He looked back on his 36 years in Congress – starting in January 1963 as clerk of the the Rivers and Harbors Committee, which eventually morphed into the T & I Committee.

Photo: ##http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2010/07/28/oberstar-aviation-safety-measures/##MPR##

Photo: MPR

He said the history of the committee – and his service to it – has been “the movement of people safely, efficiently, and effectively, for the betterment of the nation.”

He also imparted some final nuggets of wisdom for those who will follow him on the committee:

  • Earmarks. Oberstar said a bill “devoid of the 27,000 earmarks like we had in 2006” would be a good thing. “That’s excess,” he said. But, he said, it was too simplistic to shut legislators out of the allocation process. “If you believe that, then the executive branch – at the national or state level – will make all those decisions.” He pointed to his own achievements in making the process more accountable and transparent.
  • The reauthorization. He acknowledged that it was a “big hole in the legislative agenda.” He blamed the White House and the Senate for failing to come up with an agreement on a financing mechanism.
  • An extension. He said that an answer on the length of the extension of the current authorization could come as early as tomorrow, when the newly elected House and Senate leadership meets. He even threw out the possibility that “if they come to some agreement, we could maybe even be doing a new authorization in the balance of this session. We’d be prepared to do that.” Assuming that won’t happen, however, he spoke strongly against doing short, month-to-month extensions as a forcing mechanism to “hold somebody’s feet to the fire.” He said that was not reasonable. He said if it wasn’t going to be a six-year bill, they should extend it for a year.
  • Read more…

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Eliminate Waste or Kill Good Projects? Earmark Ban Could Cut Both Ways

As the election news sunk in yesterday, President Obama sought common ground with the incoming Republican leadership. His olive branch: earmarks.

The new Republican majority could try to ban earmarks - including ones for bikes and transit. Photo: POLITICO

The new Republican majority could try to ban earmarks - including ones for bikes and transit. Photo: POLITICO

In a nod to the likely new House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor (R-VA), Obama singled out an earmark ban as an area of agreement for the two parties. Cantor has called earmarks “the poster child for Washington’s wasteful spending binges.”

Just about everyone agrees that earmark reform is needed to stop funding projects like the original bridge to nowhere — the $398 million bridge to connect 50 Alaska residents to the airport. Or Florida’s notorious $10 million road to nowhere, which ends at a chain link fence. Or the million dollars New York Senator Chuck Schumer secured to study widening Route 17 in rural Sullivan County.

Rep. Jim Oberstar, as head of the Transportation Committee, worked hard to make the earmark process transparent. He posted a spreadsheet of member requests on the committee website [PDF] and defined eligibility requirements [PDF].

While there are wasteful earmarks that go to projects without merit, an outright ban makes some transportation advocates nervous. “A portion of our program has been earmarked,” says Homer Carlisle, a legislative affairs specialist at the American Public Transportation Association. “It’s just one of many sources of funding.” If there’s a real need for a project, Carlisle says, the earmark process has been a way for lawmakers to get necessary federal support for local priorities.

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Oberstar Says Goodbye, Mica Promises Rail and a Long-Term Bill

Rep. Jim Oberstar said goodbye today after 36 years in the House, during which he helped pioneer federal support for biking and walking. “I go in peace of mind and heart, but with sadness,” he said in his concession speech.

Oberstar says goodbye. Photo: ##http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2010/11/03/oberstar-political-career/##MPR##

Oberstar gives his farewell speech. Photo: MPR

He said he wouldn’t change or take back any of his votes for transportation, especially improvements in his own district. He refused to apologize for the stimulus, saying the infrastructure it paid for will be there for a hundred years.

Meanwhile, John Mica, the top Republican on the Transportation Committee – and its presumptive next chair – said in a statement:

If selected by my peers to chair the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the next Congress, my primary focus will be improving employment and expanding economic opportunities, doing more with less, cutting red tape and removing impediments to creating jobs, speeding up the process by which infrastructure projects are approved, and freeing up any infrastructure funding that’s been sitting idle.

Among my top legislative priorities will be passing a long-term federal highways and transit reauthorization… I will also focus on major initiatives to find ways within the Committee’s jurisdiction to save taxpayer dollars. That includes better management and utilization of federal assets, including real property, and more efficient, cost effective passenger rail transportation, including a better directed high-speed rail program.

Some reformers saw visions of high speed rail go down the toilet with the flip in Congressional power. Mica seems to indicate otherwise. Certainly, he’ll be under pressure from his party – which reads yesterday’s victory as a mandate for smaller government – to cut spending. But Mica supported Oberstar’s $500 billion transportation bill, and he recognizes the benefits of transit. He’ll need solid backup from advocates — speaking with a fiscal-conservative message — to convince his colleagues that infrastructure investment makes economic sense.

It looks like he’s prepared to try.

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With Oberstar Gone, Who Will Lead the Democrats on T & I Committee?

The Wall Street Journal has put out some thoughts about who might take up Jim Oberstar’s mantle now that he’s lost his seat by the narrowest of margins. (He would have lost the chairmanship in any case, since control of Congress flipped to the Republicans, but he would have been the ranking Democrat on the committee.) Will the spirit of bipartisanship that governed Oberstar’s relationship with his ranking member, Rep. John Mica, continue now that Mica is in the chair? If so, the next ranking member could help shape the reauthorization.

Could Eleanor Holmes Norton be the next top Democrat on the Transportation Committee? Image: ##http://www.expressnightout.com/content/2009/11/dc-2009-best-representative-senator-eleanor-holmes-norton.php##Express##

Could Eleanor Holmes Norton be the next top Democrat on the Transportation Committee? Image: Express

Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia would be next in line to become ranking member in January, but he already chairs the Natural Resources Committee and it’s not clear he’d switch (setting off a chain of changes in that committee as well.) Rahall’s transportation priorities – for his own, very rural, district, at least – lean toward highway construction and expansion.

And it’s not clear that he’d have to drop out of one committee to become ranking member of another. House rules only allow a member to chair one full committee at a time. I’ve checked with the House Rules Committee and the Speaker’s office and so far no one knows if the same is true for ranking members. I’ll let you know once I hear.

If Rahall is out, then the games begin.

Next in line for the job behind Mr. Rahall is Rep. Peter DeFazio, a liberal Democrat from Oregon who favors increased spending on public-transit projects.

Another Democrat in the running is Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who is the elected representative from Washington, D.C. Because Ms. Norton doesn’t represent a state, she isn’t a full-fledged members of Congress. She is permitted to vote on legislation in committees, but she does not have vote on the House floor.

If Ms. Norton becomes the top Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, she could draw the ire of tea party Republicans, who are already opposed to government spending — much less spending-bills promoted by a lawmaker who doesn’t have full voting rights in Congress.

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Election Results: GOP Govs Win Big, Dems Take California, Oberstar Ousted

The current governor map, before yesterday's winners are seated.

The current governors map, before yesterday's winners are seated. Several blue states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, will turn red. California will flip from red to blue.

The biggest news from last night, of course, is that the GOP won control of the House of Representatives. That means Republicans now control all the House committees, and Ohio’s John Boehner — a believer in wider highways — will wield the Speaker’s gavel. The Democrats hung on to the Senate, though, and pundits are forecasting two years of gridlock.

Streetsblog has mainly been profiling races for governor where transportation issues had a high profile. Here are some results with big implications for smart growth and sustainable transportation.

Governor Results

California: Jerry Brown (D) 54 percent – Meg Whitman (R) 41 percent
Whitman would have said no to high speed rail, Brown has a record of curbing sprawl and fighting highway expansion.

Colorado: John Hickenlooper (D) 50 percent – Tom Tancredo (AMC) 37 percent – Dan Maes (R) 11 percent
The GOP hangs on to major party status by a hair after bike-paranoid Maes costs them the election. Hickenlooper is a bike and transit advocate who really gets it.

Florida: Rick Scott (R) 49 percent – Alex Sink (D) 48 percent
Scott has said he’ll kill high speed rail, giving back federal dollars. Sink is a transit supporter who said bike infrastructure could improve street safety.

Georgia: Nathan Deal (R) 53 percent – Roy Barnes (D) 43 percent
Barnes has environmental concerns about a highway expansion project Deal supports. Barnes wanted to “unclog Atlanta” through transit.

Maryland: Martin O’Malley (D) 56 percent – Bob Ehrlich (R) 42 percent
Incumbent O’Malley will move forward with building a light-rail Purple Line to complement the D.C. Metro. Ehrlich said he favored bus rapid transit but some thought he was just trying to cause delays.

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Election Day Finds Two Livability Champions on the Ropes

Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN) will likely lose his chairmanship of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, as control of the House is widely expected to shift to the Republicans after today’s election. But Oberstar could also lose his seat in Congress.

Oberstar, right, and DeFazio share a ride in a pedi-cab. ##http://willametteriverbridge.blogspot.com/2010/09/congressman-jim-oberstar-d-minnesota.html##Willamette River Bridge Project##

Oberstar, right, and DeFazio share a ride in a pedi-cab. Willamette River Bridge Project

As committee chair, Oberstar has been a strong advocate for transit investment and livability reforms. He’s also the architect and chief proponent of the six-year $500 billion transportation bill that’s been stalled in the House since last summer.

Oberstar has easily won 17 consecutive elections, but the 18th is proving to be a little sticky. The LA Times reports:

[R]ecently, American Crossroads, an independent group affiliated with GOP strategist Karl Rove, started running spots on the Duluth stations that blanket the area. A group formed by Democrat-turned-Republican Dick Morris also launched a spot against Oberstar.

Then a third group called 60 Plus, which bills itself as a conservative alternative to AARP, began broadcasting $100,000 worth of ads saying it was time for the 76-year-old incumbent to retire.

Now, Oberstar’s seat is in play.

According to polling by SurveyUSA, he’s currently just one point ahead of challenger Chip Cravaack, within the margin of error. And he’s not the only champion having to fight harder than usual to retain his seat.

It’s being portrayed as a testament to the power of anti-incumbent sentiment this year that Peter DeFazio (D-OR) finds himself in a surprisingly close race against Republican Art Robinson. DeFazio, as chair of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, has strongly advocated for including livability measures in the transportation bill.

He won his last race with 82 percent, and no independent polls were even commissioned this time around — his chances were considered that good. Conservative money has helped Robinson close the funding gap, though. And the only poll that’s been conducted — admittedly, by a Republican polling firm — shows DeFazio just six points ahead. That’s a lot closer than he expected this race to be.