Rep. Jim Oberstar, a transportation investment advocate and aviation safety expert for nearly 50 years, died in his sleep May 3 at his home in the Washington suburbs.  He was 79.

Oberstar, an 18-term Democrat from northern Minnesota, first came to Capitol Hill in 1963 as a senior staff assistant to Rep. John Blatnik and then later served as administrator of the Public Works Committee.  He was elected to succeed Blatnik in 1974.

In 2007, Oberstar became the chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.  He was defeated for re-election in 2010 by Republican Chip Cravaack in the surge of GOP gains that gave the party control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Oberstar established himself as a leading authority on aviation matters and chaired the House Aviation Subcommittee from 1989-94, and the Subcommittee on Investigations & Oversight from 1987-89.  He was a member of the of the President’s “Commission on Aviation Terrorism” in the late 1980s following the Pan Am 103 disaster in Scotland.  The commission’s report laid the groundwork for the “Aviation Security Act of 2001.”

Oberstar was a driving force and author of historic federal highway, bridge, and public transportation investment laws in 1991 (ISTEA), 1998 (TEA-21) and 2005 (SAFETEA-LU).  His goal always was to make travel in the U.S. more safe, efficient and accessible for all Americans.

“For more than 40 years, Jim combined an encyclopedic knowledge of intermodal transportation issues with a practical ability to forge consensus among parties with divergent perspectives,” ARTBA President Pete Ruane said in a statement.  “On a personal level, I was honored to have known Jim since 1972 and proud to call him a friend.  He was a kind and generous man with a booming laugh, had a strong commitment to his family, and an ability to keep you captivated with his story-telling.  The palpable sense of joy on his face when he talked about his children and grandchildren will not be forgotten.”

In lieu of flowers, the Oberstar family is asking that contributions be made to Safe Routes to School National Partnership:

ARTBA extends its deepest sympathies to Jim’s wife, Jean, and the entire Oberstar family.