GIVEN THE FACT that transportation is usually not among the first-string positions in a president's Cabinet, the high regard that Drew Lewis has enjoyed as secretary of transportation is all the more notable. Topping a lengthy list of accomplishments is his latest--the nickel-a-gallon increase in the gasoline tax, for the construction of highways, bridges and mass transit systems. Long before even President Reagan would endorse this levy, Mr. Lewis was point man for the tax increase --meeting with potential opponents, working into the formula a share of its yield dedicated to transit and greasing the skids for it on Capitol Hill.
The most difficult situation Mr. Lewis says he faced was the 1981 PATCO strike. He had tried to negotiate a new contract with the air traffic controllers' union, and a generous settlement had been agreed to by the union leaders before the strike occurred. Mr. Reagan decided to fire the strikers, and Mr. Lewis supported the action vigorously--at the same time commissioning an important study of air traffic control procedures and supervisors' attitudes that was to find management weaknesses in the Federal Aviation Administration.
The secretary's attention to detail and knowledge of the Washington scene extended as well to the local area--from National Airport/Dulles policies to money for Metro and new life for Union Station.
The prevalent--and sound--view in the White House is that President Reagan is losing an exceptionally valuable Cabinet officer and team player. In two fast-paced years of selling and shepherding significant policies for the president, Mr. Lewis has earned widespread bipartisan respect for his keen political sense, management ability and intimate knowledge of the complex fields that his department is charged with overseeing. All this, coupled with strong loyalty, made Secretary Lewis a standout in an administration not exactly overstocked with such successful operators.