Former House Transportation Committee Chairman James L. Oberstar, who built a record over more than 30 years as one of the staunchest congressional advocates of highways, transit and other public works, died on May 3 in Potomac, Md. He was 79.
A statement from Oberstar's family said he died in his sleep but gave no cause of death.
Oberstar, an 18-term Democrat from northern Minnesota, made his mark through his long tenure on what is now the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
He began work in 1963 as a staffer on the rivers and harbors subcommittee, which was chaired by Rep. John A. Blatnik, who represented Oberstar’s district.
When Blatnik moved up to chair what was then the Public Works and Transportation Committee, Oberstar became his top aide.
Upon Blatnik's retirement from the House in 1974, Oberstar ran for his seat and won. In 2007, he became the full committee’s chairman.
After the August 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, in which 13 people died and 145 were injured, Oberstar moved swiftly to get legislation through Congress to authorize $250 million for a replacement span. The bill was enacted less than a week after the collapse.
Oberstar also pushed to include tens of billions of dollars for infrastructure upgrades in what became the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, though the final bill’s public-works total was less than he and other infrastructure advocates had desired.
But in a run for a 19th term in 2010, Oberstar was upset by Republican Chip Cravaack in the wave of GOP wins that gave the party control of the House.
In a farewell press conference in late 2010, Oberstar said he was disappointed that he was unable to wrap up another multi-year highway-transit bill before leaving Congress.
It wasn’t until July 2012, more than 18 months after Oberstar left Capitol Hill, that a new measure, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, was signed into law.
Following Oberstar’s death, testimonials streamed in from political figures and industry officials.
“If ever there was a patron saint of transportation policy on Earth, it would have had…to be my long-time and dear friend, Jim Oberstar,” Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-W.Va.), a transportation committee colleague for many years, said.
Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who now chairs the transportation committee, said, "I believe transportation was truly in [Oberstar's] blood, and few possessed his breadth of knowledge and passion for these issues he understood to be so important to America."
“Jim cared deeply about the people of Minnesota, devoting his 36 years of service to improving America's infrastructure, creating opportunity for hardworking Minnesotans, and building a strong economy for future generations of Americans,” said President Obama.