President Obama’s proposed $3.8-trillion budget for fiscal year 2013 recommends cuts for most major federal construction programs, reflecting continued heavy pressure to hold down overall discretionary spending. But the budget proposal also calls for a sharp boost for surface transportation and a reduction in airport grants for big airports.

Obama’s budget request, sent to Congress on Feb. 13, is just the beginning of what surely will be a long, tough, partisan fight over next year’s spending. The final numbers won’t become clear until the fall, or perhaps later.

One key construction item in the president’s budget is a proposed six-year, $476-billion surface transportation authorization. As he indicated in last month’s State of the Union address, the envisioned bill would be funded partly through a “peace dividend”—half of the expected reduction in spending from the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and a reduced military presence in Afghanistan.

But the administration is entering late to the surface-transportation authorization contest. The Senate is beginning floor debate on a two-year $109-billion measure and the House plans to vote as early as this week on a $260-billion, six-year bill. 

In that context, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was asked in a Feb. 13 conference call how relevant the administration’s $476-billion proposal is. But LaHood said, “Nobody’s ahead of anybody else. We’re all at the starting gate.”

The president’s budget also repeats a proposal he has floated at least twice since February 2012, for an immediate $50-billion infusion for transportation infrastructure.

Congress didn’t embrace the plan when Obama proposed it in February 2011 and again last September.

The White House is recommending another major shift in transportation funding, calling for a 28% cut in the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP) construction grants, leaving the account with $2.4 billion. That reduction would come from eliminating guaranteed AIP funding for large and medium hub airports. 

To help ease the impact on big airports, the budget also proposes to allow them to raise passenger facility charges, another major source of aid for airport infrastructure.

But Gregory Principato, Airports Council International-North America president, slammed the White House proposal, saying, "Given that the FAA reauthorization bill sitting on the president's desk runs through fiscal  year 2015 and contains no PFC increase, this budget is four years too late and the only thing it accomplishes is to harm the Airport Improvement Program, which the flying public pays for through the ticket tax."