Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis Dies at 84
February 18, 2016|Jeff Davis
Andrew L. “Drew” Lewis, the seventh United States Secretary of Transportation, died on February 10 in Prescott, Arizona at the age of 84.
A Pennsylvania management consultant who had worked as a bankruptcy trustee of the Reading Railroad, Lewis was Ronald Reagan’s first SecDOT, and had a personal relationship with Reagan that predated his tenure at DOT. (He was Reagan’s Pennsylvania campaign chairman in 1980, and then worked closely enough with Reagan that at the 1980 Republican Convention in Detroit, it was Lewis who was sitting in Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s hotel room and got George H.W. Bush on the phone so that Reagan could offer Bush the Vice Presidential nomination.
Upon taking the SecDOT job in January 1981, Lewis first had to deal with the steep budget cuts proposed for domestic spending by White House budget director David Stockman, then turned his attention to modernizing Conrail (the government-owned corporation created in 1973 to take over ownership and management of the multiple bankrupt railroads in the Northeast U.S.). Lewis proposed legislation in April 1981 to turn over Conrail’s passenger commuter operations to local transit agencies and allow privately owned freight railroads to purchase other Conrail lines. Lewis worked with Congress to get final legislation enacted in the August 1981 budget reconciliation package that included the commuter rail spinoff (which led to huge expansion at SEPTA, the first real rail role for Jersey Transit, and the creation of Metro-North) and reforms that would eventually lead to Conrail being sold as a profitable whole.
Lewis’s most prominent moment as Secretary came during the air traffic controllers’ strike in August 1981, when Lewis, acting under Reagan’s directive, fired 11,345 controllers who had gone on strike two days before (in spite of a 1955 federal law that made their striking a misdemeanor criminal offense). Through a combination of good planning and good luck, a mixture of ATC supervisors, non-striking controllers, and controllers borrowed from the military were able to maintain the ATC system at pre-strike capacity (after several weeks of sharply lowered capacity) without any fatal accidents due to controller error.
As the aftermath of the strike was winding down, Lewis turned to what would be his defining legislative accomplishment. In December 1981, Lewis circulated a proposal to a Cabinet sub-group to increase the federal taxes on highway users by the equivalent of five cents per gallon of gasoline (at a time when the federal gas and diesel tax rates were only four cents per gallon) to provide for increased federal investment in highways and to dedicate $1 billion per year for capital assistance to mass transit.
As Eno’s 2015 paper Reagan Devolution recounts, throughout 1982, Lewis engaged the public and stakeholder groups in advocating the tax increase, even though Reagan had not yet signed on to the idea and despite opposition from White House staff, the Treasury Department, and the Office of Management and Budget. By working closely with Congress (whenever Congress was in session, Lewis went to Capitol Hill once per week to have a private luncheon with the chairmen and ranking minority members of the Congressional transportation committees), Lewis was able to spring into action once Reagan formally decided to support the tax increase shortly after the 1982 midterm elections. Lewis had a full legislative package delivered to the Hill on the opening day of the 1982 lame-duck Congressional session, and he worked closely with Reagan and the White House staff throughout the hectic three-week session to get the legislation through both chambers of Congress and one of the shortest House-Senate conference committees on record.
The Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 remains the last time Congress actually increased taxes on highway users for the purpose of increasing investment in transportation. (The later 1990 and 1993 tax increases were originally enacted in the context of deficit reduction packages and were only redirected to transportation later on.)
Before the Senate had even passed its initial version of the legislation, Lewis had made good on his promise to only serve two years in government and then depart for the private sector by sending the President a hand-written resignation letter on December 12. Reagan waited until just after Congress had cleared the surface transportation bill before accepting the resignation publicly. (A PDF of Lewis’s hand-written resignation letter from December 1982 is here and a transcription, along with Reagan’s letter to Lewis accepting the resignation, is here.)
After leaving government in early 1983 (succeeded as SecDOT by Elizabeth Dole), Lewis ran Warner-Amex Cable and then became chairman and CEO of Union Pacific Railroad in 1986, later becoming CEO of the parent holding company in 1987. (See this article in Railway Age for an interesting take on Lewis’s influence on the decision by Congress to keep the Interstate Commerce Commission’s rail merger functions alive in a quasi-independent Surface Transportation Board instead of turning them over to the Justice Department, motivated by Lewis’s hopes for a merger of Union Pacific and Southern Pacific.)
Lewis retired from Union Pacific in 1997 after shepherding the UP-SP merger through to completion.