Former U.S. Representative James Oberstar, a one-time chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee who devoted his lengthy congressional career to modernizing America’s roads, bridges and ports, died yesterday. He was 79.
Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, died in his sleep at his home in Potomac, Maryland, according to the Associated Press. A cause of death wasn’t provided.
Oberstar was elected to his seat in 1974, part of a large group of Democrats swept into Congress across the country after President Richard Nixon, a Republican, resigned that August over his involvement in the Watergate political scandal. Many of the “Watergate Babies,” as the freshman class was known, grew to hold positions of power.
Oberstar was one of them. He sat on the House transportation panel during his entire 36 years in office, earning a reputation for his expertise on aviation, shipping and infrastructure. He championed funding for airport and bridge construction, bike paths, highways and dredging for Great Lakes shipping lanes.
“Literally, his life was dedicated to and built around transportation and infrastructure,” said Janet Kavinoky, executive director of transportation at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“He was at the center of every major rewrite of every highway bill, he was at the center of some of the most historic transportation laws in the modern era,” said Ed Wytkind, executive director of the transportation trades department at the AFL-CIO, who worked with Oberstar for decades on various issues. “He wrote and rewrote every major aviation law going back to the 1970s.”
Oberstar pushed to implement Amtrak as a national rail system and to bring labor unions to the table on infrastructure legislation.
“He was the conscience of the House when it came to making sure the voices of workers were heard,” Wytkind said.
Oberstar served as chairman of the transportation panel from January 2007 until January 2011, having lost his seat in the November 2010 election to Chip Cravaack, a Republican backed by the small-government Tea Party movement. Cravaack lost re-election in 2012 to Democrat Rick Nolan.
In 2010, Oberstar was one of a half-dozen Democrats who threatened to vote against President Barack Obama’s health-care legislation if it allowed federal funds to subsidize insurance plans that cover abortions. Oberstar ultimately backed the bill, a vote he said might have cost him the election later that year.
On Aug. 1, 2007, an interstate highway bridge collapsed in Minnesota, killing 13 and setting Oberstar on a campaign to repair the nation’s aging infrastructure and pay for it, at least in part, with higher gas taxes. He called for a $500 billion investment, nearly 60 percent more than the $285.5 billion in spending authorized at the time. His proposal got nowhere in Congress.
A cyclist himself, Oberstar promoted federal grants to help municipalities develop bike paths.
Oberstar represented Minnesota’s 8th congressional district, which borders Canada and includes the cities of Duluth and Grand Rapids.
After leaving government, he was an adviser to Global Traffic Technologies in St. Paul, Minnesota, a technology company specializing in traffic-management systems.
President Barack Obama praised Oberstar for “creating opportunity for hardworking Minnesotans and building a strong economy for future generations of Americans.”
“Jim will be deeply missed,” Obama said in a written statement.
Oberstar is survived by his wife, Jean, four children and eight grandchildren, according to the AP.