House Extends Trust Fund, Awaiting a Fight

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(Washington, D.C.--Todd Zwillich) The House voted on Wednesday to extend the nation's surface transportation law, forestalling an inevitable debate on how to restructure highway funding in an age of deficits.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the Surface Transportation Act (link) until September 30, the end of the current fiscal year. The bill authorizes $580 billion over the next decade and about $53 billion this year. Most of that spending, about $42.5 billion, is to be funneled through the Highway Trust Fund.

The extension comes as Congress prepares for a broader debate over how to fund--or cut--federal highway and transit spending to help fill budget gaps. The Highway trust fund is financed with the 18.5-cent federal gas tax, which in recent years has failed to keep up with the demands of infrastructure building and upkeep. That's led lawmakers to dip into general government revenues to make up the difference, a move that is about to become a no-no under Republican leadership in the House.

The House's move comes a day after the release of a Government Accountability Office report that criticized widespread duplication and inefficiency at the Department of Transportation. It concludes DOT has become an uncoordinated and largely haphazard collection of programs. The Obama Administration agrees for the most part; it proposed a consolidation scheme for DOT in its Fiscal 2012 Budget.

All of this points to a tough transportation debate later this year, ranging from the future of the Highway Trust Fund and infrastructure spending to cutting programs--wasteful or otherwise--from DOT.