Oberstar looks back on helping in districtOn the day after losing an election for the first time in his life, as he fought back tears and tried to recall 36 years of service in Congress, Jim Oberstar talked about a plethora of construction projects – from freeway bridges to airport terminals, ports and bike paths – that he helped bring to fruition.
By: Forum Newspapers, Lake County News Chronicle
On the day after losing an election for the first time in his life, as he fought back tears and tried to recall 36 years of service in Congress, Jim Oberstar talked about a plethora of construction projects – from freeway bridges to airport terminals, ports and bike paths – that he helped bring to fruition.
That is the lasting legacy of his work spanning five decades as a staff administrator, a member of the U.S. House Transportation Committee and eventually its chairman.
“The bridge over Interstate 35 at North Branch will be there long after I leave office and long after any successor leaves office,” Oberstar said. “The Lakewalk in Duluth will survive long after my service.’
But it isn’t a transportation project that brings Oberstar his fondest memory in Congress. He said his best vote came way back in his first term, when he sponsored legislation to raise the pension for 174 retired lighthouse operators who had been overlooked in a previous federal employee pension bill.
The legislation came at the request of a retired lighthouse keeper in Two Harbors, and Oberstar got it passed.
But the man died just days after President Ford signed the bill into law. Oberstar said the lighthouse keeper’s widow wrote him, saying “her husband died knowing that government could work, even only for one person.’
“There is much more of which I am proud,” Oberstar added. “Much more of which I am grateful to have the opportunity to have accomplished, but I go with peace of mind and heart, but with sadness.”
“I’ve loved the opportunity to serve the people of this district,” he added.
Fellow politicians, friends, labor leaders, and others last week remembered Oberstar as a congressman well versed, sometimes verbose, always engaging and always focused on the issue at hand – which usually involved planes, trains, or automobiles or the iron ore from which they’re made.
- U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., called Oberstar the national go-to expert on all transportation issues.
“Jim Oberstar is a national treasure,’ Franken said in Duluth the day before the election. “Jim Oberstar knows more about transportation than anyone in the country.”
- George Sundstrom of Duluth, a retired sheet metal worker and former head of the Duluth AFL-CIO Central Labor Body, said Oberstar was adamant that any free trade agreements the U.S. entered should be fair to U.S. workers, not just U.S. companies.
“Some people call what he did pork. I look at it as jobs for workers and food on the table and a better future for our region,” Sundstrom said.
“He never forgot his roots; growing up in a mining town in a mining family ... he was always looking out for working people and their families. That’s why he was so proud of the stimulus bill, for putting people back to work,” Sundstrom said. “And I remember that he voted against NAFTA, and took a lot of heat for it, because he knew that it would ship good jobs overseas. And it has.”
- U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said Oberstar has had a major effect on national transportation policy, especially aviation safety, and highway funding. Oberstar led the push for so-called intermodal efforts that link rail, highway, pedestrian, bike, and air travel through urban hubs.
“He literally changed the landscape in Washington on transportation policy. He was a visionary, looking beyond highways to what we will need 20 years down the line,” Klobuchar said.
- U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who probably will succeed Oberstar as chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee under Republican leadership, said Oberstar was fair, dedicated, and informed as chairman.
“He had an incredible wealth of knowledge on the issues, after being involved with the committee for 32 years before he became chairman, so he was on top of everything ,’ Mica said.
While Mica said he is more conservative and business-oriented than Oberstar, he said they often put aside their philosophical differences to move transportation policy forward.
“We disagreed on some things. But we tried to move forward on what was best for transportation for the nation,” Mica said.
In 2008, when Oberstar was unable to attend a committee hearing because of an illness, Mica helped lead the charge to override the veto by President George W. Bush of the Water Resources Development Act, which authorized numerous environmental projects across the country, from flood control to funding for communities along the Gulf Coast hit by hurricanes to sewage-treatment plants, dams, and beach protection.
The override sailed through Congress and the Senate, and became law.
“Jim was right on that, the president was wrong. ... We hadn’t had a water resources bill in years and desperately needed one,” Mica said.
- Oberstar has been a passionate supporter of hiking and biking and recreation trails for fitness, fun, and tourism, said Steve O’Neil, a St. Louis County commissioner.
“People are going to remember him for everything he did to improve transportation, from biking and walking to freeways, airports and, hopefully, renewed passenger train service to Duluth,’ O’Neil said. “Just about every bike trail, highway, and airport we use are almost entirely due to his efforts.”
O’Neil also lauded Oberstar “for his commitment to clean water, and the Clean Water Act, and to cleaning up the Great Lakes. He was passionate about that.”