As posted on National Journal’s Transportation Experts Blog
With the upcoming departure of Jim Oberstar, Congress – and I dare say – the nation is losing a national treasure, a leader whose resume is trumped only by his character, resiliency and incredible commitment to service. Among many giants in the Congress, Jim Oberstar is the single member in modern history who challenged the conscience of our nation about the mounting transportation needs of America and did something about it.
Jim Oberstar traveled across America and every corner of the world studying the best ways to move passengers and global commerce. He is unyielding in his view that effective and efficient transportation is completely compatible with worker and public safety. An entire generation of workers – whether they operated, maintained or built our transportation system, or worked in our vast manufacturing supply chain – owes a debt of gratitude to Jim Oberstar for their middle-class wages, benefits and safe job sites.
Among the icons that rise above others in the history of Congress, few can match Jim Oberstar’s accomplishments. The massive expansion of our aviation system coincides with his career to date. He was promoting the need to build the “next generation” air traffic control system years before it became stylish to do so. The historic surface transportation bills completed on his watch put tens of millions to work, embraced the concept of “intermodalism” and connectivity that is now the transportation policy gold standard worldwide and advanced the now-proven principle that rebuilding and expanding the transportation network is a powerful engine of job creation. The zeal with which he pushed for massive expansion of public transportation will forever mark a turning point in America’s spotty history of fulfilling the vision of a mass transit network that serves all people. His unwillingness to let extreme forces dismantle, privatize and de-fund America’s national passenger railroad, Amtrak – and his passionate push for high speed rail – make Jim Oberstar a founding father of the modern passenger rail era that is on the verge of transforming the way Americans travel. His stubborn commitment to expanding our maritime system and stopping those who would gut the U.S. Merchant Marine and the laws that protect the industry and its employees make Jim Oberstar a friend that will be hard to replace. And there wasn’t a single worker protection in our laws and regulations that Jim Oberstar didn’t write or defend, even during the difficult 1990s when some sought to dismantle decades-old protections. These protections include the right to form and join unions, bargain collectively, prevailing wage requirements and fair treatment for workers when our government invests in transportation or reviews mergers and acquisitions.
For much of his career, Jim Oberstar has made the case that injecting billions into transportation operations and infrastructure is among the most effective ways that Congress and the President can lift economies up. During too many recessions, members of Congress failed to heed Oberstar’s calls. But with the passage of the 2009 Recovery Act, Jim Oberstar’s position won the day with the largest transportation provision ever enacted in a stimulus bill. While a monumental achievement, Oberstar said the $48 billion wasn’t enough and he was right. While there are many nay-sayers out there, the facts are the facts: at least 1.5 million Americans worked or are working thanks to the transportation stimulus championed by Jim Oberstar.
With all of Jim Oberstar’s achievements, let us not forget his commitment to forging bipartisan consensus while upholding his principles. Let us not forget the decency with which he conducted his life’s work. Let us not forget the dozens of dedicated, proud members of his staff who served with great distinction. Let us not forget his respect for the institution he served for so long. And for union members everywhere, let us not forget that there will be few who follow Jim Oberstar in the House – a leader who always believed that strong unions are the best path to the middle-class. This is a value that he carries with him in the memory of his father Louis Oberstar, an Iron Range miner, a fighter, and a founding local steelworker union leader. I never met Louis Oberstar. But after working with Jim Oberstar for the last 20 years, I feel like I have.
We won’t soon forget his force of personality or his accomplishments made in the Congress. But I don’t think Jim Oberstar is done with transportation policy yet. I will look forward to working with him wherever he chooses to do his future work, whenever he chooses to do it.