Ray Barnhart’s passing this past May received due recognition in Republican Party circles, especially in Texas where he served as party chairman, state representative and Texan campaign chairman for a presidential hopeful named Ronald Reagan.
His passing received less fanfare in the road industry, perhaps because only those of us of a certain age were around when he was working his miracles for America’s road and bridge infrastructure.
Barnhart played a key role in putting candidate Reagan on the political map in 1976, co-chairing a campaign that gave Reagan an staggering sweep of the GOP vote despite overwhelming support among party leaders for incumbent president Gerald R. Ford. Reagan went on to win the presidency in 1980 and appointed Barnhart director of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).
Ray Barnhart was a conservative’s conservative, and his five-year stint at the FHWA was a shining example of how traditional conservatism can improve the effectiveness and efficiency of government.
What most of us who were around in the ‘80s remember about Barnhart is that he convinced the country’s most conservative president in a generation to sign off on the largest federal fuel tax increase in history and the first increase in 23 years.
Barnhart’s influence in President Reagan’s decision was apparent when Reagan explained he was signing the bill because it was less expensive to repair the roads now than it would be later. The rest of the story: Reagan insisted Congress reduce the number of “demonstration projects” – the polite term for pork barrel projects in the ‘80s – to 300 before he would sign the bill. Like the fuel tax increase, this insistence on fiscal discipline was a critical part of Ray Barnhart’s concept of good governance.
Barnhart remained intellectually and emotionally involved in the road and bridge industry long after he resigned from FHWA in 1987. He wrote several pieces for Better Roads in the early 2000s. One of his favorite subjects was corporate fuel tax cheats and the hundreds of millions of dollars that could be added to the Highway Trust Fund if we had appropriate enforcement measures in place.
Barnhart always returned phone calls and shared the benefit of his experience generously with the trade press. When health issues forced him to step back from writing, we missed him.
As the years have gone on and our federal government has descended into a quagmire of nihilistic partisanship, we who knew Ray Barnhart have missed him even more. He was not an advocate for free government or no government, nor was he an advocate for more taxes and spending. He was an advocate for fair and efficient governance and dealing with problems when they come due.
And he was one of the great leaders in our field.