Obituary: Robert Roe / Congressman who led passage of transportation law

Feb. 28, 1924 - July 15, 2014

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Robert Roe, a New Jersey Democrat who helped enact massive transportation, clean-water and other initiatives during more than two decades in the U.S. House of Representatives, died July 15 at his home in Green Pond, N.J. He was 90.

A godson, New Jersey Assemblyman Scott Rumana, confirmed the death and said Mr. Roe had congestive heart failure.

Mr. Roe spent nearly his entire career in politics. Beginning in the 1950s, he served as mayor of Wayne Township, N.J., as a freeholder (a position similar to a commissioner) in Passaic County and as the New Jersey commissioner of conservation and economic development.

He won his House seat in 1969 in a special election to complete the unexpired term of Charles Joelson, a Democrat who had left Congress to assume a judgeship. Mr. Roe represented New Jersey’s 8th District, encompassing much of Passaic County, including Paterson and Wayne Township, until declining to seek reelection in 1992.

He was “a classic congressional type,” according to his profile in the 1992 Almanac of American Politics, “the professional politician who is a lifelong bachelor and lives in a Washington hotel, staying up late at night studying bills and precedents, working hard to make deals and put together constructive programs in back rooms and then using his good reputation to sell them to colleagues on the floor.”

He was widely known for his interest and expertise in transit, an area of legislation that he influenced as chairman of the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation during his final term in office.

He was credited with spearheading the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, a sprawling piece of legislation abbreviated ISTEA and informally known as “Iced Tea.” It provided $151 billion for highways and other transit projects and was “probably the most important piece of legislation to repair America’s infrastructure in the coming decade,” The Washington Post reported shortly after its passage.

As Mr. Roe described it, the project was “a humongous effort that involved seven full months, seven days a week, 16- to 20-hour days.” He helped win passage of the bill, the Times of Trenton reported, by studying all projects included in the proposal and ensuring that all 435 congressional districts would benefit from the federal funding.

At times, Mr. Roe was accused of encouraging pork-barrel politics, or funding projects to curry local political favor. Mr. Roe defended the expenditures as legitimate services to constituents.

“They use the word pork barrel and they use the word boondoggle,” he once said of the critics. “The boondoggle is if you do not get it in your own state.”

Mr. Roe’s other legislative interests included matters related to the environment and particularly to water. He chaired a water resources subcommittee and played a leading role in passing legislation that overcame a veto by President Ronald Reagan to allocate $20 billion to fund the construction of sewage treatment facilities and other water cleanup initiatives.

“Clean water is life itself,” Mr. Roe said, countering criticism of the program’s expense. “That is where our true priority lies.”

On the House Science and Technology Committee, Mr. Roe led hearings on the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster that killed everyone on board, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

In 1987, he became chairman of the committee, which, under his leadership, changed its name to the Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Robert Aloysius Roe was born in Lyndhurst, N.J., according to an online death notice.

He attended Oregon State University, where he studied engineering, and Washington State University, where he studied political science, before serving in the Army in Europe during World War II. The death notice said that his decorations included the Bronze Star Medal.

In 1993, shortly after leaving Congress, Mr. Roe was involved in an automobile accident that injured the driver and a passenger in another car. He pleaded guilty to reckless driving and drunk driving charges.

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