May 5, 2014 10:35 AM, EDT
James Oberstar Dies; Was Former House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman
Dennis Brack/Bloomberg News

Former House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar died May 3. He was 79.

The longest-serving representative in Minnesota history, Oberstar, a Democrat, was dominant in transportation policymaking for some 25 years.

He died in his sleep at his home in Potomac, Md.

Oberstar was first elected to Congress in 1974 as a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in a district that encompassed Minnesota’s Iron Range, where he was born.

He became chairman of the Transportation Committee in 2006 but was swept from office in the 2010 wave of Republican sentiment that ended Democratic control of the House.

“Jim Oberstar knew everything there was to know about our nation’s infrastructure and fought tirelessly to rebuild and renew it,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.

In 2009, the year that President Obama entered the White House, Oberstar as chairman prepared a transportation reauthorization plan to replace SAFETEA-LU, the expiring transportation spending law.

However, the new administration said it wanted the plan shelved until it had time to prepare its plan.

“If ever there were a patron saint of transportation policy on Earth, it would have had to have been to be my longtime and dear friend, Jim Oberstar,” said Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), currently ranking member on the committee.

“While his vast reservoir of knowledge and ability to crunch budgetary numbers on the spot were superb, his bottom line of how policy and budgets affected the American people was unsurpassed,” Rahall said in a statement.

The current committee chairman, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), said in a statement that transportation was in Oberstar’s blood. “Few possessed his breadth of knowledge and passion for these issues he understood to be so important to America,” Shuster said.

Patrick Jones, executive director and CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, issued a statement calling Oberstar a champion infrastructure.

“His keen intellect and command of history and transportation policy earned him the respect and admiration of all who knew him,” Jones said.