to Portland, helped craft and pass
the nation’s first Safe Routes to School
(Photos © J. Maus)
A big surprise from last night’s Democrat drubbing at the polls is that 35-year Congressman Jim Oberstar lost his race to Republican Chip Cravaack. Oberstar lost by just 4,000 votes out of 273,000 cast.
Oberstar’s loss means he will no longer be the Chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, a position he has held since 2007. Rep. John Mica will assume leadership on that committee.
“No elected official has done more for bicycling than Jim Oberstar.”
— Tim Blumenthal, President of Bikes Belong
But beyond the immediate politics, Oberstar’s loss signals the end of an era for America’s bicycle movement. Oberstar was a titan of non-motorized transportation. The President of the League of American Bicyclists, Andy Clarke, said this morning that, “we lost a star player in yesterday’s elections.”
“As for the defeat of Congressman Oberstar, that’s a real loss. Regardless of party politics, Oberstar was a true champion of transportation issues and his loss is a major blow to everyone interested in the passage of a robust, multi-modal, long-term transportation bill – including bicyclists.”
Kevin Mills, the Vice President of Policy for the Rails to Trails Conservancy told me via email this morning that with Oberstar’s loss, “It is clear that bicycling has lost a special friend and champion.”
Bikes Belong Coalition President Tim Blumenthal had this to say about the news,
“No elected official has done more for bicycling than Jim Oberstar. The list of bike-friendly programs and policies that he’s championed is long and impressive.”
Blumenthal added that it was Oberstar’s presence in the Rust-Belt that made him such a key advocate for bicycling. “He’s from the heartland of America–not the west, not the frontier. The credibility of someone from northern Minnesota pushing for more bicycling has been very helpful.”
Oberstar, who still gets out and rides well into his 70s, put non-motorized transportation on the map on Capitol Hill. In 1998, he helped pass federal legislation that created the Safe Routes to School program, funding it with over $600 million that has been spent at over 7,000 schools across the country. In 2005, he pushed for the groundbreaking “Non-motorized Transportation Pilot Program” as part of the 2005 Transportation Bill (SAFETEA-LU). That program gave four cities $25 million to spend on biking and walking projects.
Oberstar was also working on legislation that would have created a national legal standard and improved the “rights to the road” for people who ride bicycles.
Just last year, Oberstar pushed for a new Transportation Bill to replace the long-expired SAFETEA-LU legislation. His bill would “go beyond the automobile” with provisions like an Office of Livability and major support for the U.S. Bicycle Route System. With a receptive Democrat in the White House and a reformed U.S. DOT, he felt the time was right to push it through. Unfortunately for Oberstar, the Obama Administration had other priorities in mind for their first two years and his bill languished. (It also didn’t help that Oberstar did’t have any way to fund the $500 billion bill.)
Beyond policy, Oberstar’s role in the national bike movement was one of cheerleader. He was regularly called upon to rally the troops at the National Bike Summit with his familiar cry of “We’re going to convert America from the hydrocarbon economy to the carbohydrate economy.”
On the final night of the National Bike Summit in 2008, Oberstar limped up to the podium just weeks after hip surgery and delivered a rousing speech which left the crowd chanting, “Encore! Encore! Encore!” I will also always remember that day back in 2007 when he gutted out some steep climbs in Oregon’s backcountry during Cycle Oregon.
Even without his presence on Capitol Hill, Oberstar’s legislative legacy and passion for non-motorized transportation in America will persist for many years. Thank you Mr. Oberstar for all the work and support you’ve given over the years.
— For past coverage, see our Jim Oberstar story tag.