On Nov. 18, President Obama signed an appropriations bill approving the U.S. DOT's budget for 2012. In addition to supporting five federal departments, the $130.4 billion “mini-bus” spending bill offers a glimpse into belt-tightening measures legislators have been promising.

As usual, funding will increase in some areas and decrease in others compared to 2011 (see graphic).

The department's $17.8 billion discretionary budget is nearly 30% higher than last year's. In addition, the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) Emergency Relief program will receive nearly $1.7 billion as part of a new, $2.63 billion allocation for disaster relief.

Now it's up to Congress to finance the plan, which is easier said than done.

The bill warns that spending limitations will virtually deplete the Highway Trust Fund by the end of this year. If Congress doesn't pass a new surface transportation authorization bill by then, FHWA will have to initiate cash management procedures that could negatively impact timely reimbursement of state construction expenses.

While the Senate Environment and Public Works committee passed its Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) in November, the House of Representatives didn't deliver a bill by the end of last year as planned.

Even if both proposals come up for a vote this month, though, they're so different that Congress may have to extend SAFETEA-LU (Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users) a ninth time if it can't find common ground before March, when the current extension expires.

The Senate's two-year, $109 billion MAP-21 package relies on funding from the Federal Highway Trust Fund, but falls short by $12 billion annually.

Released in July 2011, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's proposed six-year, $230 billion surface transportation program would cut support of highways, transit, and safety by 30%.

Funding would come from current gasoline, diesel, and other taxes. House Speaker John Boehner has since proposed “drilling for dollars” financing that would tap into royalties from increased offshore oil and gas drilling and oil shale production.