Longtime U.S. Rep. Oberstar passes away

Chisago, Isanti officials reflect on his legacy

by Rachel Kytonen and Derrick Knutson

Jim Oberstar
Jim Oberstar

Chisago and Isanti counties, as well as the entire 8th Congressional District, are reflecting on the life of longtime U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, who died in his sleep May 3.

Oberstar, 79, died at his home in Potomac, Md., and a cause of death was not provided.

The veteran Democrat, born in Chisholm, Minn., served 18 terms from 1975 to 2011 — 36 of the 48-year congressional career as a representative from northern Minnesota.

Oberstar became chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in 2006, which helped secure millions in federal funding for projects in his district.

In November 2010, Oberstar lost his seat in a close race to Rep. Chip Cravaack, but continued to work as a consultant on transportation safety.

Oberstar’s family said through a statement they are mourning his loss. Oberstar is survived by his wife, Jean, four children and eight grandchildren.

“Jim was a loving husband, father, grandfather, friend and brother,” the family said. “While we mourn the loss of a good man, we also celebrate his life and his service. We ask for your thoughts and prayers, and understanding, at this very difficult time.”

Oberstar was a driving force when it came to getting the Highway 95 Bridge constructed in North Branch.

“He was very instrumental in helping us get the funding for the Highway 95 Bridge project,” North Branch City Administrator Bridgitte Konrad said. “I was sad to see the news (of his death) on Saturday.”

Former North Branch City Engineer Julie Dresel worked closely with Oberstar on the project.

“He really worked very hard to bring the public works projects to the communities he served, not only in his district but throughout Minnesota and the United States.”

She noted he was also integral in securing funding for the Safe Routes to School program in North Branch so students within walking distance of the district’s elementary, junior high and high school would have paved paths on which to walk to school.

Perhaps what Dresel and others will remember most about Oberstar is the way he had with people.

Dresel said when Oberstar would come to town, he’d often take a laid-back approach to meetings, if the weather was nice, and he’d go on bike rides with people along the Sunrise Prairie Trail.

“It was a chance for him to speak more casually with elected officials and constituents about things that were important to the community,” she said.

One of Oberstar’s most well-known projects in Isanti County was the Cambridge-Isanti Bike-Walk Trail, which opened in July 2011. Oberstar was a key factor in securing federal funds for the trail that was more than 20 years in the making, and he attended the groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

Bill Carlson, project director of Isanti County Active Living by Design and chair of the Cambridge-Isanti Bike-Walk Trail Committee, said Oberstar will be missed.

“Congressman Oberstar was very proud of being able to help make Isanti County and all communities in the 8th District better places,” Carlson said. “He had all the tools for moving funds to his home district for many projects that needed additional help to complete. In Cambridge and Isanti County, he was instrumental in getting the Robert Wood Johnson Grant for Active Living by Design (he was on the Advisory Committee that decided which communities would receive the grants), then of course he secured most of the funding for completing the Cambridge-Isanti Bike-Walk Trail. He was wonderful to work with — always cheerful, enthusiastic about our projects, friendly and open with his opinions. He will be greatly missed. His legacy is assured here in Isanti County, as it will be throughout Minnesota, the U.S. and in Europe, as he represented the U.S. at the meetings of the European Ministers of Transportation.”

Oberstar was a proponent for transportation safety, and securing federal funds for local projects.

“Congressman Oberstar was a true advocate for transportation projects, traffic safety and community improvement in our area,” said Bob Bollenbeck, transportation planner and Toward Zero Deaths coordinator of the East Central Regional Development Commission. “He actually crafted major transportation funding bills which provided federal funding to many transportation projects including a Cambridge enhancement project to improve Main Street, the Cambridge-Isanti Bike-Walk Trail, transit hub funds for Heartland Express and several road projects in Isanti County. He was also responsible for major funding for other projects such as the North Branch Bridge on Highway 95 and numerous safety improvements for Highway 8 in Chisago County.”

Oberstar connected with the people he served.

“His commitment to traffic safety was also very evident. In 2008, he participated in a meeting in Cambridge, sponsored by the Center for Excellence in Rural Safety, which focused on the accomplishments of Isanti County Safe Cab,” Bollenbeck said. “He also established the Safe Routes to School program which funds projects to promote more walking and biking opportunities for communities. Congressman Oberstar was a unique congressman with an ability to connect local people with the resources for significant improvement in the quality of the local community.”

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