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In memoriam: Former transportation expert, funding crusader and House committee leader James Oberstar

James Oberstar, a former U.S. congressman from Minnesota and House transportation committee chairman who was considered the leader of transportation infrastructure reform, died May 3. He was 79.

The veteran Democrat served 36 years as a representative from northern Minnesota from 1975 to 2011. Oberstar rose to become chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and became a crusader in efforts to boost federal funding for roads, bridges and public transit systems. He was instrumental in securing a commuter-rail system in the Twin Cities and earned a reputation as an expert in public works and transportation issues.

"He was the leading infrastructure expert of our time,” said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota, in a news item posted on the United Transportation Union's web site.

Oberstar also was "a great friend of organized labor," said SMART Transportation Division officials in the item.

“Jim Oberstar was not only a champion of workers in his district and all over Minnesota, he was a true advocate for all transportation employees in this country and cared about their safety on the job. We lost a real giant among men,” said SMART Transportation Division President John Previsich.

Added SMART Transportation Division National Legislative Director James Stem: "We also cannot ever forget that our Railroad Retirement Reform Act would not have become law without his strong advocacy."

Other politicians and transportation industry constituents also reflected on Oberstar and his accomplishments:

"By the time Jim rose to chairman of the House Transportation Committee, he knew more about transportation than anyone in this country. The first time I saw Jim in action as chairman, he was presiding over a hearing on high-speed rail with witnesses from Japan and France, and several other countries, all of which — to our shame  — are far ahead of us in high-speed rail. When it came time for the chairman to ask his questions, I learned that Jim had piloted every one of these high-speed trains, and Jim questioned the French witness in his own language in startlingly fluent French. It was a tour de force." — U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.)

"Congress, Minnesota, and the nation have lost a good man who dedicated his life to public service and our country’s transportation system. 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. 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. I will miss my good friend, and my thoughts and prayers are with his family." — U.S. Rep. and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.)

"Jim Oberstar's passion for sound transportation policy spanned decades, first as a staff person and eventually as chairman of the congressional committee that writes and oversees our federal transportation laws. He was a tireless advocate for safety, consumer protections and robust federal investment so that the American public could continue to enjoy the best transportation system in the world. His personal imprint on our national transportation policies across all modes cannot be overstated." — U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx

"He was a great national leader on transportation and one of America’s most knowledgeable experts on infrastructure. Jim had a true passion for building America’s infrastructure and his service in Congress will long be remembered and appreciated." — U.S. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.)

"We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Chairman Jim Oberstar, who has been a true leader on transportation issues on Capitol Hill. Mr. Oberstar was a thoughtful and knowledgeable lawmaker with almost unparalleled influence in the transportation world, with an appreciation for planning for the long term. He was the leading infrastructure expert of our time who focused on the most effective ways to move people and goods, including the adoption of intermodalism. Congressman Oberstar will be remembered as a dedicated and loyal servant to the American people." — Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ed Hamberger

"For transportation workers, Jim Oberstar was the "Conscience of the House" as he spent a distinguished career as a lawmaker giving them a strong voice inside the corridors of power. On the transportation issues that confronted our nation, Jim Oberstar, known to many as Mr. Chairman, was a towering figure. When there was a job to create or save, Jim Oberstar led the charge. As our transportation system deteriorated, Jim Oberstar led every battle to demand action on federal investment initiatives." — Transportation Trades Department President Edward Wytkind

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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