Bicycle Advocate in Congress Crashes, Burns

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The recent U.S. election was discouraging in general for green transportation advocates, but one loss I felt particularly keenly was the unseating of Minnesota Democratic congressman James Oberstar by a slim margin. For as Carolyn Szczepanski writes on her blog People Powered Transportation at Mother Earth News:

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.”

Oberstar was vested in many transit issues, as Minnesota Public Radio reports, but it was clear that biking was close to his heart, and he was responsible for directing funding to many bike trails in the nation and the state. He was in some ways a classic pork-barrel politician, but he served up an awful lot of tasty pork to bicyclists. I’ve ridden many miles on Oberstar-funded trails, including the Lakewalk along Duluth’s Lake Superior waterfront–and so, I imagine, have many of the people who voted red over blue this time around.

Washington, D.C.’s Streetsblog reports that now that Oberstar is out of the picture, Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, a “coal-n-highways Dem,” may be angling for the top Democratic seat on the Transportation Committee. (The silver lining: This would take Rahall and his pro-coal agenda off the Natural Resources Committee.)

Oberstar is a savvy guy. He probably knows that he didn’t get voted out because people suddenly hate bike trails, but because the soft, doughy, pliable middle of the electorate simply swung in the other direction this time. Maybe they need to get out and bike a bit more.

Sources: Mother Earth News, Minnesota Public Radio News, Streetsblog Capitol Hill

Image of Rep. James Oberstar by John Schadl, courtesy of the photographer.

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