When Drew Lewis yields the wheel

In accepting the resignation of Drew Lewis as US secretary of transportation, President Reagan is losing one of his most able cabinet officers. While many of Mr. Lewis's actions remain highly controversial - such as his role in the initial firing of the air traffic controllers after they went on strike in 1981 - there is little disputing the fact that he reshaped the role of one of the more lackluster departments in the federal apparatus.

Now, in selecting a successor to Mr. Lewis, President Reagan - and the US Congress - might well consider whether the current thrust of the transportation department is in the right direction. Recall, in this regard, the priorities of the department under former Carter-administration secretaries Brock Adams and Neil Goldschmidt, also able officials.

Although the two Carter officials differed somewhat in their objectives, their main departmental priorities involved strong efforts for highway safety - such as seeking, and eventually winning, mandatory restraint systems in cars - as well as ensuring a balanced federal role in promoting diverse forms of transportation in the US, including trains, planes, and roadways. There was to be deregulation and a cutback in federal services, as with Amtrak. But federal financial support was to be maintained in the larger transportation scheme.

The approach under Mr. Lewis, by comparison, has been oriented towards much faster deregulation. Conrail, for example, is being returned to private industry. Through special fees users of trains, highways, and subways are being required to pay a larger share of operating costs. Mr. Lewis has also advocated a phasing out of operating assistance for mass transit systems.

Two other Lewis goals must also be noted: In pushing for and winning the eventual enactment of the new five-cent-a-gallon hike in the federal gas tax - after twice being rebuffed by President Reagan on the proposal - Mr. Lewis is ensuring substantial renovation of the nation's roadway and mass transit networks. But, as part of that legislation, the public will soon face even larger trucking rigs thundering down the already clogged highways of America.

Given such a sharp philosophical turn from the prior administration, it would seem appropriate that the department take a more balanced stance than has been the case in the past several years. There should be more concern about public safety on highways than has been shown by allowing big rigs out on roadways in urban areas or in delaying the mandating of passive restraint devices.

People, after all, are even more important than all those deteriorating roads , bridges, and trains.

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