U.S. Rep. James Oberstar forever linked to transportation

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | Monday, May 05, 2014

James Oberstar’s legacy will be forever linked to transportation. The former 17-term Democrat from Minnesota and past chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee died unexpectedly Saturday, May 3, at the age of 79.

Oberstar had been retired from politics since January 2011 after losing his 8th District congressional seat in the November 2010 election.

During his time in Congress, Oberstar served on numerous committees and caucuses, but no subject was more important to him than transportation.

OOIDA had lots of interaction with Oberstar and his staff over the years. Association leadership remembers him for his bipartisan approach to transportation and his commitment to a strong federal role in highway and bridge infrastructure.

“He was a living encyclopedia on transportation policy going back to before deregulation,” said OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer.

“He always recognized the big picture in transportation policy and passionately raised concerns regarding the push by many to privatize our highway network and to walk away from the obligation to the public to make needed investments in roads and bridges. Our thoughts go out to his family and to his many former staffers who are still working on these important issues today in Washington and around the country.”

Oberstar contributed a guest editorial for the October 2006 issue of Land Line Magazine in which he raised doubts and concerns about cross-border trucking with Mexico.

“The administration must be able to guarantee that every truck crossing our border meets all applicable U.S. safety standards for truck and driver before entering this country,” Oberstar stated in that editorial.

Following the tragic collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis in August 2007, Oberstar responded with legislation to expedite bridge replacement and ensure new inspection standards. The bridge that stands there now is a testament to that work.

Oberstar was an occasional guest on “Land Line Now,” where he outlined his bridge proposals, spoke of plans to increase federal fuel taxes to pay for roads and bridges, and discussed other topics of importance to truckers.

As he left politics, Oberstar said his biggest disappointment was not getting a highway bill across the finish line. In 2009, he proposed a five-year, $450 billion highway bill that received committee support but did not get an endorsement from the full House or Senate. Congress chose a different path instead, and pursued a series of temporary extensions of an expired highway bill to pay for transportation over the short-term.

“I feel there’s a big hole in the legislative agenda not having completed that work,” Oberstar told reporters by teleconference after losing his 2010 election bid to Republican Chip Cravaack. Although Cravaack was the first Republican to win the 8th District seat since 1947, he served only one term, losing to Democrat Rick Nolan in 2012.

U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the current chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, issued a statement on Oberstar’s passing.

“Jim Oberstar was respected and admired for his tireless advocacy for strengthening our infrastructure, first as a staffer, then as a member, and finally as the chairman of this committee,” Shuster stated.

“I believe transportation was truly in his blood, and few possessed his breadth of knowledge and passion for these issues he understood to be so important to America.”

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