The Federal Highway Administration has granted the Virginia Department of Transportation preliminary approval for Gov. Bob McDonnell's plan to toll I-95 under the Interstate Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program.

In a September 14 letter, FHWA Administrator Victor Mendez granted the conditional provisional approval and outlined steps required to move forward. As part of this approval, VDOT's conditional provisional approval to toll I-81 will be rescinded.

"I-95 is one of the most important and heavily traveled highway corridors in the country, linking population and commercial centers up and down the East Coast," McConnell said. "Limited funds and growing capital and maintenance needs have led to deficient pavements and structures, congestion, higher crash density and safety concerns. This approval is a major step toward funding critical capacity and infrastructure improvements needed in this corridor."

But the American Trucking Associations says tolling I-95, would harm the state, as well as the nation's economy, more than help repair the corridor.

"While it is true that I-95 is one of the 'most important and heavily traveled highway corridors in the country,' as Gov. McDonnell says, there are far more expeditious and efficient ways of raising revenue for its upkeep than tolls," said ATA President and CEO Bill Graves in a statement. "Study after study shows that tolls carry astronomically higher capital and overhead expenditures compared to the fuel tax.

"Raising the fuel tax provides revenue immediately, rather than over several years like tolling, and it doesn't require upfront investment to build a government bureaucracy to collect it," Graves said. "While many see tolling as a way to avoid raising taxes, tolls certainly are taxes, and imposing them is certainly not a 'conservative' way to finance highways."

In addition to the financing inequity, Graves said imposing tolls would only add to I-95's congestion, or worse, drive trucks off onto smaller secondary roads that aren't designed to handle the increased traffic.

"The Interstate Highway System was designed to promote the free flow of goods across our country. Setting up toll booths at our borders and near our cities will restrict those goods and harm our economy," Graves said.

Proposals like this one, Graves said, are a symptom of the problems the federal government has had in passing a long-term highway bill.

"As a former governor, I know that when Washington abdicates its responsibility, states must step up to fill the void," he said. "If President Obama and Congress were serious about creating jobs and improving our roads and bridges, they would quickly pass a long-term, well-funded transportation bill focused on critical corridors like I-95."

Preliminarily, VDOT estimates it could generate $250 million over the first five years of the toll program and over $50 million a year after that. These toll revenues will help fund capacity expansion, operational improvements, safety improvements, and pavement and structure reconstruction and rehabilitation throughout the corridor.

Examples of projects that could be funded through toll revenues include widening I-95 between I-295 and the North Carolina border, enhancing Intelligent Transportation Systems and installing over-height detectors on bridges, shoulder widening and the installation of guardrails, and improving pavements on more than 700 lane-miles within the corridor.

By granting VDOT conditional provisional approval, the U.S. DOT is reserving a slot in the Interstate Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program. This reservation will allow VDOT to undertake necessary studies. The Interstate Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program is a federal demonstration program that provides authority for only three states to toll Interstate facilities. Once the statutory provisions of the program are satisfied, the opportunity for tolling will be available.