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Jim Oberstar's legacy: 'Mr. Transportation' for Minnesota, 8th District

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Friends and colleagues are still mourning the sudden death of former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, who died in his sleep on Friday at his home in Maryland at the age of 79.

For many Minnesotans, Oberstar's influence can be felt every time we drive on a highway or over a bridge, ride a commuter train, or pedal along on a bike trail. He was, first and foremost, a champion of transportation in all its forms.

Oberstar represented Minnesota's 8th Congressional District for 36 years, from 1974-2010, and during that time he became adept at steering millions of federal dollars toward public infrastructure projects in his district and throughout Minnesota. He became an expert on transportation policy over the years, and his influence only grew as he spent more time on the House Transportation Committee. He was elected chairman of the committee in 2007.

The Washington Post reports that Oberstar became known as an advocate of “intermodality,” the idea of linking highway, air and rail systems with urban buses, subways and bike paths. And the result of that philosophy can be seen throughout northeastern Minnesota, in the various projects that Oberstar championed during his tenure.

The day after Oberstar lost is re-election bid in 2010 to Republican Chip Cravaack, he said he was proud of his legacy of service in Minnesota, and mentioned some of the public projects that he was most proud of, MinnPost reports. Here's a partial list:

-- The Lakewalk in Duluth

-- New overpasses on I-35

-- A new airport terminal in Duluth

-- Tunnels on the North Shore’s Hwy. 61

-- The Paul Bunyan bike trail

-- The ­Gitchi-Gami bike trail

-- A customs and border control facility in International Falls

Projects like these, Oberstar said on that day, “will be there long after I leave office.”

Oberstar also gained funding for the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, as well as a state-of-the-art water treatment plant in Ely, and tens of millions of dollars in funding for two light rail projects in the Twin Cities area, the Washington Post reports.

During one of Minnesota's darkest periods, after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis on Aug. 1, 2007, Oberstar ensured rapid passage of $250 million in federal money to build a replacement bridge. The funding was approved by both houses of Congress and signed by President George W. Bush in less than a week. Afterward, Oberstar continued to push for more funding to repair and replace failing bridges.

Former State Rep. Tony Sertich, who calls Oberstar one of his mentors, summed up his influence neatly in this comment to MPR News:

"You can't travel anywhere in Minnesota, but especially northeastern Minnesota, be it on a road or a bridge or a bike path, that Jim Oberstar didn't help get there."

A visitation will be held Wednesday at Joseph Gawler’s Sons funeral home in Washington, D.C. from 5 to 8 p.m. and a private funeral and burial is planned for 11 a.m. Thursday at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Potomac, Maryland, WCCO reports.

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