Former transportation 'icon' Oberstar dead at 79
Jim Oberstar, a giant in transportation policy for decades and a forceful advocate for infrastructure investment, died in his sleep Friday at his home in Maryland. He was 79.
Oberstar was an 18-term congressman who represented Minnesota's 8th congressional district for 36 years and served as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from 2007 to December 2010, when he lost his re-election bid to Republican Chip Cravaack.
He was nicknamed "Mr. Transportation" for his extensive knowledge of transportation policy across all modes. He forcefully argued that an effective national transportation system was important for economic growth, and saw a strong role for the federal government in various aspects of the transportation industry, including safety, foreign competition and labor protection.
"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," Rep. Bill Shuster, a Republican from Pennsylvania and the current chairman of the House T&I Committee, said in a statement.
"He was such an icon and a champion of transportation. It’s really the passing of an era, when you consider the length and strength of his history," Leslie Blakey, executive director of the Coalition for America's Gateways and Trade Corridors, told American Shipper.
The former Democrat lawmaker was a major proponent of increased spending on transportation infrastructure, endorsing more than $40 billion in the 2009 American Recovery Act and later that year, proposing a $500-billion plan to reauthorize surface transportation programs over six years. The bill included a provision to create a dedicated freight fund and $50 billion for high-speed rail. Oberstar favored raising the per-gallon gasoline and diesel tax to help plug the shortfall between state obligations for infrastructure needs and declining revenues in an era of fuel-efficient vehicles, but the Obama administration and other lawmakers have opposed any tax increases. He also pushed for indexing the gas tax to inflation during debate on the SAFETEA-LU transportation plan that Congress approved in mid-2005, which would have resulted in an additional $89 billion for the Highway Trust Fund had the Bush administration not insisted on a smaller package.
Since then, surface transportation has struggled through a series of short-term spending extensions and then a two-year baseline spending plan that simply maintained the status quo as needs multiplied. Congress is now debating a long-term reauthorization bill for surface transportation programs, but it is highly uncertain whether a $300-billion or more package will be voted on without some consensus on how to raise more money for the soon-to-be-insolvent Highway Trust Fund.
"There has been a deterioration of the greater good-of-all viewpoint that we had in the first Congress and that existed in 1956 [creation of Interstate Highway System], and even in 1982," when President Ronald Reagan signed a 5-cent gas tax increase into law, Oberstar said in an exit interview with reporters in 2010.
Another increase was enacted under President George Bush in 1990.
"So three Republican presidents supported increases in the user fee, but that apparently isn't good enough for today's Republicans, as a conference," he said.
Oberstar also led a legislative push to eliminate ocean carrier antitrust immunity for discussion agreements, arguing that competition is diminished and shippers hurt when carriers are allowed to benchmark rates and surcharges.
Oberstar, a champion of labor and protecting U.S. transport industries from foreign competition, also was a strong critic of airline mergers, such as Continental and United, which he said hurt consumers by concentrating market power in a few mega carriers that are able to reduce service and raise prices in many cities. He called for the government to re-regulate the airline industry.
He led the House passage of a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill in 2010 that included funding increases for aviation programs and also would have made it easier for workers to unionize at FedEx, but the FedEx provision was not adopted by the Senate. Oberstar wanted to amend the Railway Labor Act to clarify that employees of an "express carrier" are covered by the RLA only if they are employed as an airplane mechanic or pilot. The rule change, designed to even the playing field for rival UPS, would make truck drivers and package handlers fall under the National Labor Relations Act.
Pressure by Oberstar led the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in 2009 to reform lax procedures for granting hazardous material permits and to propose tighter rules for carriage of lithium ion batteries by air, which the air cargo industry opposes as excessive.
Oberstar had continued to remain an active in the transportation arena, working as a consultant and speaking on issues. Last fall, he told Politico that the Obama administration should counter foot-dragging in Congress by using any existing authorities it has that don't require congressional action to advance transportation needs.
Last week, Oberstar wrote Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to urge the rejection of Norwegian Air International's application for a foreign air operator's certificate to expand its long-haul transatlantic service. He said the application violates the U.S.-European Union Open Skies agreement and threatens the U.S. airline industry and its workforce because NAI's labor arbitrage would give it an unfair cost advantage.
"He was a man who devoted his life to transportation and cared about it as much as anyone," Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Center for Transportation and former staff member on Capital Hill, said in an interview. "And he cared about it from the perspective of the public. He saw himself as a kind of public steward of transportation. He didn’t have an agenda. He seemed like an independent, intellectual thinker on transportation," Schank said.
His motives, Schank added, were for the national good.
"He believed strongly in the traditional highway programs, the focus on formula disbursements to states and the federal match. He was not a fan of tolling and alternatives being considered for the highway program today," such as public-private partnerships, Blakey said.
"Whenever we would talk to him about multi-modal needs and goods movement and look for ways to be innovative, he was very interested. He was very interested in the full spectrum of transportation needs and that did include freight," she said, adding that he saw transportation from the national perspective and as a competitive advantage.
The family has announced that a visitation will be held Wednesday at Joseph Gawler Sons funeral home in Washington from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., and a private funeral and burial is planned for Our Lady of Mercy in Potomac, Md., at 11 a.m. on Thursday.