Facing Highway Funding Crisis: Remembering Ray Barnhart

Barnhart believed strongly in maintaining the user-fee principle and the pay-as-you-go approach in transportation funding as embodied in the original ideal of the Highway Trust Fund, which used the federal gas tax as the major dedicated source of funding. This was the successful embodiment of the user-fee principle that those who most used the transportation system should pay for it.

By Gary Hoitsma | June 24, 2013

Administrator Ray Barnhart (second from left) explains to President Reagan the need for additional revenue. (USDOT)

One of the more significant budget and policy issues facing Congress and the Administration in the coming months will be how to continue to pay for the Nation’s most important transportation infrastructure, including its major highways, bridges and transit systems. The issue is coming to a head next year when the current surface transportation law, MAP-21, expires on September 30, 2014.

After that date, changes to the current federal transportation funding mechanism based on the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gasoline tax will be needed to avoid a serious transportation fiscal meltdown. The tax simply does not bring in enough money by itself to maintain current transportation spending levels, which are themselves considered by most members of Congress to be inadequate to keep up with growing needs for road and bridge repairs. The same mini-crisis in transportation funding occurred four times in the last six years, and each time, Congress saw fit to bail out the depleted Highway Trust Fund with General Fund revenues. But doing it again will only be more costly and politically difficult now. It is time for Congress to bite the bullet on transportation funding and find a long-term sustainable solution.

Special perspective on this current transportation challenge comes with word of the recent passing of a longtime transportation policy advocate and practitioner, Ray Barnhart, who dealt directly with almost identical issues when he served as President Reagan’s Federal Highway Administrator from 1981 to 1987. Barnhart, 85, died May 26 at his home in eastern Ohio, after bouts with numerous health related problems in recent years.

Barnhart was a dynamic figure in transportation circles during his tenure at the Highway agency in the waning years of the original Interstate construction era. He was a fierce defender of what he saw as the agency’s non-political professional engineering role in administering the Federal-aid highway program. He sought changes to promote fiscal responsibility in government, streamlining project delivery, cutting red tape and returning more responsibility to the states. He was perhaps best known within the agency for his easy-going manner and his strong communications skills.

On the morning of March 30, 1981, barely a month after joining the Reagan Administration team, Barnhart joined other newly named high-level appointees in attending a meeting with President Reagan in the East Room of the White House. There, Reagan gave them his generic marching orders for what he expected all of them to do during their tenures in his Administration—to uphold conservative principles, to act with honesty and integrity, to advance the goals of the administration generally. It was largely an upbeat, happy pep rally of sorts.

But Reagan concluded by telling them seriously — in words that Barnhart would recount with emotion in the weeks, months and years after: “In making your decisions,” Reagan said, “I want you to make them not based on what is in my best interest for reelection, but on what is in the best interest of this country.”

They were words that Barnhart took to heart at the moment they were spoken, and then even more so in the wake of subsequent events. That very afternoon, Reagan was shot following his speech at the Washington Hilton, and almost died in the assassination attempt that became such an indelible part of the history of the Reagan years.

The next time Barnhart met directly with President Reagan, some months later, Barnhart was telling the President what he thought was “right for the country” with regard to transportation. Along with then-Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis, he was advocating for a 5-cent-per-gallon increase in the federal gas tax, something which was most certainly not in Reagan’s best interest for reelection. But Barnhart and Lewis believed it was right for the country. The tax was the major dedicated source of funding for the Highway Trust Fund, the successful embodiment of the user-fee principle that those who most used the transportation system should pay for it.

Initially, Reagan’s reaction was cool to the idea of a tax increase, having dedicated most of his first year in office advocating for tax reductions in other areas. Without endorsing Barnhart’s proposal public or privately, Reagan gave his appointees a green light to pursue their own advocacy campaign to see if they could generate sufficient support in the Congress to make it legislatively viable.

At the time, the tax had not been raised in 23 years, and Barnhart argued that an adjustment was needed if only to keep pace with inflation. The situation was closely comparable to what is happening today. Barnhart also believed strongly in maintaining the user-fee principle and the pay-as-you-go approach in transportation funding as embodied in the original ideal of the Highway Trust Fund. He was not a fan of long-term debt creation or deficit spending for infrastructure or anything else.

In the end, Congress passed the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 with the support of President Reagan. It was a huge success for Barnhart’s efforts and the efforts of many others in the transportation community at that time, some 31 years ago. Turns out, it was the last time that the gas tax was raised with its revenues simultaneously dedicated to transportation.

Today, while times have changed, the challenges facing transportation remain remarkably the same with regard to the funding dilemma. While the solutions may turn out to be different, the history of the 1981-82 gas tax debate, in which Ray Barnhart played such a principle role, offers a unique and instructive perspective.