Former CTS director remembers Jim Oberstar

By Robert Johns, former CTS director

When Jim Oberstar came into a room, heads would turn, and you would hear, “The Chairman is here.” He loved being Chairman, and all the power that came with it. I entered a new world when I became CTS director, with millions of dollars for the University at stake, subject to how he felt about CTS, during an era of earmarks.

When I realized how important the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) was to him, I formed a partnership with UMD leaders to help them establish a transportation program. With the help of Barb Rohde, I began to regularly visit his office in the Rayburn Building, and we continually looked for opportunities to share University research that would get his attention and bring visibility to CTS. We established the Oberstar Forum, which USDOT administrators and other national transportation leaders would attend to show their respect for his leadership and position. I flew around Texas in a small plane with him—and with TTI director Dennis Christianson and a Texas Congressman—to show community groups our support for his fellow committee member’s re-election campaign and transportation ideas.

This world of relationships, influence, and power did not come naturally to me. But I got to know Jim Oberstar, and I got to know his staff: Bill Richard, David Heymsfeld, Jeri Sparling, and others. These relationships were important for CTS, but they became more than that. We earned the trust and loyalty of Jim and his staff, and they earned ours; and we worked together as a team to advance transportation.

There is an emotional closeness in political relationships that is unlike professional or academic relationships. Jim Oberstar’s passion for transportation and people inspired us. He cared deeply for his friends and supporters, approaching the love he had for his family. He thrilled the Oberstar Forum audience when his long-time colleagues and former Chairmen, Bud Shuster and Norm Mineta, came on stage. He welcomed them with joy, with his big smile and with exclamations, and put his arms around both of them as they faced the photographer. He sought out his University supporters at a fundraiser in Minneapolis, and stayed after everyone left to discuss engineering and computer science research with Max Donath, Nikos Papanikolopoulos, and Shashi Shekhar. And he and I became a team on stage, intuitively managing CTS events and facilitating the participation of other speakers, even to the point where he brought his comments to a close after sensing my signals—not something many had success with!

I last saw him at the TRB Chairman’s luncheon, where he received an award, and I gave a TRB Council report. We met each other backstage, with the other head table guests for pictures. He did not know that I would be there. When he saw me, he exclaimed, “Bob!” and proceeded to give me a big hug. He then talked enthusiastically about his new office at the University. I will not forget my experience with Jim Oberstar—the passion, ideas, energy, political savvy, and genuine care for people that he brought to transportation, and to me.

Robert Johns is the Director and Associate Administrator at Volpe, The National Transportation Systems Center, USDOT. He served as the director of CTS from 2001 to 2009.

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