We weren’t naïve.
Like everyone else in Washington, D.C., bicycle and pedestrian advocates expected a Republican surge in last week’s midterm elections. We knew a conservative Congress would have major implications for the next federal transportation bill. We were bracing ourselves for new faces and fresh challenges on Capitol Hill.
But nobody expected we’d lose one of our most dependable and powerful champions.
“I’m not going to lie,” Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists wrote on Wednesday morning. “I’m depressed.”
If you don’t live in Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District or follow federal transportation policy, you probably don’t even know the name James Oberstar. He was elected to Congress in 1974, and, since his very first term, served on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
For bike-ped advocates, those committee members are critical and, for three decades, Oberstar pushed to get bicyclists and pedestrians recognized and treated as “intended users” of our public roads. In the last wave election in 2006, when Democrats took control of the House, Oberstar was elected chairman of the transportation committee. A few months after he claimed leadership, he told a crowd at the National Bike Summit: “We're going to convert America from the hydrocarbon economy to the carbohydrate economy.”
Well, now we’ll have to do it without him, because Tuesday's political tidal wave sunk his ship. In a race decided by a mere 4,000 votes, Oberstar lost reelection to Republican Chip Cravaak. That defeat in Minnesota cast a cloud over the entire nation.
Jonathan Maus, a prominent blogger and editor of BikePortland.org, might have summed it up best. “Oberstar's loss signals the end of an era for America's bicycle movement,” he wrote shortly after the results came in. “[He] was a titan of non-motorized transportation.”
Clarke, at the League, outlined the Congressman’s key role in a variety of bike-ped victories. “Over the past 20 years, you can trace many of the gains we’ve made straight back to the desk of Jim Oberstar,” Clarke wrote. “Broad eligibility for transportation funds, the Safe Routes to School Program, state bicycle coordinator positions, the requirement to plan for bicyclists at the state and regional level, the non-motorized pilot projects — all started with him.”
Safe Routes to School has become hugely popular, directing more than $600 million in federal funding to thousands of schools and communities across the country to encourage kids to bike and walk. The Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Program awarded $25 million each to four U.S. cities to build infrastructure, initiate public education campaigns and demonstrate how bicycling and walking can ease the load on our heavily trafficked streets.
Oberstar wasn’t out of bold, new ideas, either.
Last year, the Minnesota Democrat released the House transportation committee’s first stab at our nation’s next — and already overdue — federal transportation bill. The bill roundly criticized our over-reliance on automobiles. It established an Office of Livability, which would study cyclists’ rights and dramatically expand research on biking and walking. The bill also gave significant support to the creation of a U.S. Bicycle Route System.
Unfortunately, we won’t have Oberstar advancing such novel and needed ideas when Congress tackles transportation reauthorization next year.
In his concession speech, the 18-term Congressman spoke at length about his transportation legacy. And he didn’t just highlight the major bridges and highway projects. He gave equal attention and pride to improvements and projects for cyclists and pedestrians.
“The Lake Walk in Duluth will survive long after my service,” Oberstar said. “People will be walking and biking and enjoying a better quality of life… The extension of the Sunrise Prairie Trail will link Canada and the Twin Cities with a continuous bicycle facility that will be the envy of the nation… The Paul Bunyan Trail, for which I have great affection, when we first started promoting it had 40,000 users. Last year, it had 650,000 users and was an engine of economic growth and stability.”
His legacy extends far beyond the borders of Minnesota. It’s not just the hundreds of thousands of people who bike and walk the Paul Bunyan who are flooding his inbox with their gratitude. Oberstar is — and should be — getting thank-you notes from every corner of the country.
Deb Hubsmith, the executive director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, was among the first to write an open letter to Oberstar last week. “Through your 36 years of inspired leadership as a Congressman, you reformed the transportation system to make it multi-modal, institutionalized walking and bicycling within state Departments of Transportation, and ensured that the safety of children on the trip to and from school is a priority for transportation planning and construction,” Hubsmith wrote within a few hours of Oberstar’s concession. “Thanks to your leadership, foresight and hard work, many thousands of schools and communities across the country are now making it safer for children to walk and bicycle to and from school, and in everyday life.”
Whether or not you ride or walk for transportation in your daily life, Oberstar was fighting to make our streets safer for everyone. He was fighting to give us all the freedom to choose how we travel to school and work, instead of having that decision dictated to us by infrastructure that only accounts for automobiles. And, for that, he deserves the gratitude of all Americans. (Hint, hint: His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org)
At his press conference, Oberstar said he’ll find a way to continue his service to the American people, though it won’t be from Capitol Hill. “There will be opportunities for public service,” he said. “I’ll reflect for awhile and look for something in the public arena.”
Clarke, for one, hopes the Congressman saves room in his schedule to take advantage of the fruit of his labors; set aside some time to cruise the Prairie Sunrise or Paul Bunyan trails he worked so hard to fund and promote.
“If anyone deserves to enjoy the simple pleasure of a bike ride,” Clarke wrote, “it’s Jim Oberstar.”
Photo: Congressman Jim Oberstar