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.