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James Oberstar

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: ## 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, who died early Saturday morning, was an architect of the Safe Routes to School program. Photo: ## 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.

In 2011, Congressman Oberstar came to Boulder and we took him on a tour. We were biking on 28th Street, which had recently been turned into a Complete Street, including intersection improvements, transit queue jump lanes, better sidewalks and improved multi-use paths. He had recently had hip replacement surgery and was only recently back on his bike. But he was still full of joy, and as we rode along the project and explained it to him, he smiled his huge grin and said, "This is exactly what I meant for us to build with our federal dollars. This is it!"

A joyous cyclist

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), founder of the Congressional Bike Caucus:

Jim Oberstar was a joyous cyclist...whether exploring Portland with me on a bike, dedicating a bikeway in DC, or taking the first ride up the bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue, his love of cycling and commitment to sharing that experience were some of my favorite all time cycling memories.

Changing the habits of “transportationally-challenged children”

Deb Hubsmith, founding director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, is currently on medical leave recovering from treatment for acute myeloid leukemia. But she took the time Saturday to post this beautiful tribute to Oberstar on the SRTS-NP blog:

[Congressman Oberstar] was a legend in his own time and will be sorely missed, but always remembered.  His legacy will live on each and every day when kids and families all across America are able to safely walk and bicycle to schools…

In 1991 Congressman Oberstar played a critical role in ensuring that the ISTEA transportation bill included money for the first time for walking and bicycling, and he set up a structure requiring each state to hire a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, and to create a statewide bicycle plan.  He was a get-it-done man, and always seized the moment to make the most of every opportunity.

I first had the opportunity to meet Mr. Oberstar 14 years ago in March 2000 on St. Patrick’s Day at the Sea Otter Bike Classic in Monterey, CA. There was a bike industry/advocacy forum on getting everyone to work together. Mr. Oberstar challenged the crowd after he had seen a presentation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the rise in childhood obesity and the decline in kids walking and bicycling to schools.  He said we were raising a generation of “transportationally-challenged children” and he planned to launch Safe Routes to School pilot programs as a way to “change the habits of an entire generation." He asked the bike industry and advocates to help.

The next month I flew to Washington DC to talk further with Mr. Oberstar about his plans and to volunteer my help.  I had recently written a research paper at the end of 1999 with [Wilderness Trail Bikes] President Patrick Seidler about Safe Routes to School in the U.K., as well as the success of interconnected bike networks, and I was eager to participate in making our mutual vision a reality.  Mr. Oberstar and I hit it off from the beginning and he “deputized” me as the person to carry out a federal pilot Safe Routes to School program in Marin County, CA for the 2000-2001 school year.  He urged me to “do it right” as he planned to take the data from our local project and demand a national Safe Routes to School program be authorized by Congress…

Within six months after the data was released on the Marin program, Mr. Oberstar would talk about how 26 states already wanted Safe Routes to School and it was time to go national – he always thought big and had the power, influence and intelligence to make it happen.  I started working with Mr. Oberstar and his staff on crafting national legislation to bring Safe Routes to School to all of America, and in June 2003, Mr. Oberstar introduced a bi-partisan marker bill called the PACE Act which included funding for Safe Routes to School in all 50 states.  Over the next two years, bicycle advocates launched a campaign to get Safe Routes to School included in the 2005 federal transportation bill SAFETEA-LU, and I kept flying back to Washington, testifying at forums that Mr. Oberstar asked me to speak at.  Mr. Oberstar was the ranking member of the T&I Committee at the time, and he told the Chairman Don Young (R-AK), that it was his top priority to include the program in SAFETEA-LU…

There are now more than 14,000 schools in all 50 states nationwide benefitting from the federal Safe Routes to School program, and we have the late Congressman Oberstar to thank and honor.  In speeches in recent years Mr. Oberstar talked about Safe Routes to School as one of the most important programs he authorized in Congress and one of the programs he is proudest of.

Photo: ## League##
Photo: ## League##
Photo: ## League##

Riding the big ring

Andy Clarke, president, League of American Bicyclists:

The first time I met Mr. Oberstar was late 1988 or early 1989. I had written to commiserate about his being "doored" and he not only replied but suggested I come in and discuss the upcoming transportation bill! His commitment to bicycling was clear even then -- we had lunch in the members’ dining room and I can still see the faces of his staff as his schedule for the day went out the window. He wanted to talk about opportunities to weave bicycling into that legislation -- and the rest is history!

On another occasion, I remember we had bike reception on the Hill and right next door there was another event hosted by a Minnesota group. The Congressman came in to our event, said a few words and went next door -- I assumed that would be the last we'd see of him that evening. Fifteen minutes later I see him back in our room chatting away with folks about bicycling -- in fact, that was the evening he confessed how much he enjoyed putting away work papers and pulling out his copy of Bicycling magazine on the plane back to his district.

Jim tracked every mile that he rode and so we were shocked to realize in early 2002 that he had never ridden a century (100 miles)! Gary Sjoquist at Quality Bicycle Products created the Oberstar 100 in September of that year -- to coincide with the Pro Walk/Pro Bike conference in St. Paul -- to put that issue straight. We rode an urban century around the Twin Cities using many road and trail projects funded by the very programs he created. About 60 miles into the ride I am alongside him and see that he's churning up the ramp from the Cedar Lake trail into downtown Minneapolis on the big chain ring (hardest to turn). He had yet to drop onto the small ring -- 60 miles into the ride. He was a beast.

Mr. Oberstar joined our board of directors in March -- we were so honored. During his first board meeting he spoke as eloquently and forcefully in support of our equity goals as anyone.

“He knew what it’s like for a biker on the streets.”

Julie Kosbab, an active transportation advocate in Anoka County, Minnesota, wrote a remembrance of Oberstar on Streets.MN:

When I had opportunities to ride with him, he was wearing bike shorts that had seen miles. He had calves, serious calf muscles, despite his age and despite his profession (which involves a lot of sitting and bloviating). He averaged 2,000 miles on a bike a year, and had been the victim of a car-bike collision. He knew what it’s like for a biker on the streets, on trails, by day and by night.

Oberstar was a passionate advocate of a carbohydrate-based transportation system. He’d taken up bicycling as a response to grief after the death of his first wife, and converted members of his staff to bike commuters…

After his 2010 defeat, he remained active in the Minnesota community and continued to advocate for “carbohydrate-based” transportation programs.

Sketching out a bill on the back of a piece of paper

Joshua Schank, president and CEO, Eno Center for Transportation:

I worked with his wife, Jean, at a consulting firm called SH&E. We would have occasional social dinners with Mr. Oberstar, where he would tell all kinds of great stories about transportation. Years later I had the privilege of spending a few days with him and Jean in Valencia, Spain for an Aspen Institute conference. It was there that he sketched out his now somewhat famous (for transportation) vision of the next surface transportation bill on the back of a piece of paper. [Ed. note: The bill he sketched out in Valencia was the one he introduced in 2009, which was never passed.]

Patron saint of transportation policy

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), current Ranking Member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, in a statement:

If ever there were a patron saint of transportation policy on Earth, it would have had to have been to be my longtime and dear friend, Jim Oberstar.

While his vast reservoir of knowledge and ability to crunch budgetary numbers on the spot were superb, his bottom line of how policy and budgets affected the American people was unsurpassed. The country shall miss him greatly.

Memories poured out over Twitter as well.

Barbara McCann, founder and former director of the Complete Streets Coalition and current director of the Office of Safety, Energy, and Environment in the Office of the Secretary, US Department of Transportation:

Oberstar memories: after he learned my heritage, he always spoke Slovenian to me. Not that I could reply. Very sorry we've lost him.

— Barbara McCann (@csbarb) May 4, 2014

Gabe Klein, former director of Chicago DOT and DC DOT:

RIP Jim Oberstar, one of the most passionate, courageous & energetic Congressman we had. Will miss him. My thoughts are with his family. — gabe klein (@gabe_klein) May 3, 2014

R.T. Rybak, former mayor of Minneapolis:

Deeply sorry to lose hero and mentor Cong. Jim Oberstar, Patron Saint of Minneapolis Biking, and so so much more. I — R.T. Rybak (@R_T_Rybak) May 3, 2014

During biking events in Minneapolis I often got people to turn to the East and bow, to our amazing friend in Washington, Cong. Jim Oberstar — R.T. Rybak (@R_T_Rybak) May 3, 2014

Adam Snider, POLITICO transportation reporter:

JIm Oberstar is the first politician whose death really saddens me on a personal level. He was a kind, smart, humble man. — Adam Snider (@AdamKSnider) May 3, 2014

Jim Oberstar was biking right up to the end - told me in March he still hoped to go a few thousand miles this year.

— Adam Snider (@AdamKSnider) May 3, 2014

Amy Klobuchar, senator from Minnesota:

Every miner should remember Oberstar for work on mine safety, every biker & hiker for his trails, every citizen for his passion for country — Amy Klobuchar (@amyklobuchar) May 3, 2014

The comments are open for your memories and anecdotes about Congressman Oberstar as well.

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