By Barb Thoman, Executive Director
It is a seismic moment in the transportation world when a leader of the stature of James Oberstar dies. Oberstar was a long-serving representative from Minnesota, but he was also an international giant in the world of transportation.
In his decades in Congress, Oberstar worked in a bipartisan way to forge a new vision for transportation that recognized how transportation underpins so much of our lives, how goods get to market, how people get to work, how children get to school. He set in motion and in policy a comprehensive, multimodal view of transportation that impacts the nation and world in positive ways every day.
At Transit for Livable Communities, we supported Congressman Oberstar’s vision for transportation. And we were specifically involved in carrying it out as administrators of the federal Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program he championed. Through this program, Congress charged four communities across the nation to test the potential of bicycling and walking to move people, improve health, and reduce air pollution.
In the Minneapolis area, the pilot program, known as Bike Walk Twin Cities, led to an expansion of the network for bicycling and fostered innovation, from bike sharing to community bike/walk centers. It contributed significantly to huge increases in bicycling and walking from 2007 to 2013. Congressman Oberstar was there at the beginning of Bike Walk Twin Cities, leading a bike ride at the University of Minnesota campus, and with the vision to see what this pilot could inspire. His leadership in creating this program has engendered a new commitment—by elected officials, transportation professionals, and communities—to making sure our transportation systems serve everyone.
Congressman Oberstar’s legacy and passion for transportation also extends beyond Bike Walk Twin Cities. He spoke excitedly and in fluent French about the TGV high-speed trains in France. Under his leadership, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee initiated the federal New Starts Program that has funded many new rail lines across the US, including our own Hiawatha (Blue Line) and Central Corridor (Green Line) light rail. Congressman Oberstar helped to secure early funding for the renovation of Union Depot in Saint Paul, which will begin serving Amtrak trains this week. The wildly popular Safe Routes to School program was one of the programs of which he was most proud.
We are saddened by the death of such a great leader and a good friend. We also are committed, like so many others he inspired, to working toward the vision of transportation as pivotal to health and prosperity for all. As people travel this state’s and this county’s growing network of bike routes, we hope they will tip their helmets to Congressman Oberstar for his vision and leadership.