The Federal Highway Administration granted the Virginia Dept, of Transportation preliminary approval for collecting tolls on Interstate 95, spurring immediate protest from the American Trucking Assns. (ATA) that said the move will hurt the economy more than it will help repair the I-95 corridor. VDOT estimates tolls could generate more than $50 million a year.

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

Federal Highway Administration Administrator Victor Mendez granted the VDOT conditional provisional approval for a toll plan the state submitted in January. Virginia will secure full approval upon meeting specific requirements Mendez outlined in a Sept. 14 letter, McDonnell’s office said.

“This approval is a major step toward funding critical capacity and infrastructure improvements needed in this corridor,” McDonnell said in a statement. “The commonwealth cannot continue to be a leader in economic development and job creation if we do not address our transportation needs.”

VDOT estimates the I-95 toll program could generate $250 million in its first five years, and more than $50 million annually in subsequent years. The revenues would pay for expanding highway capacity, improving road safety, and reconstructing and rehabilitating pavement and structures along I-95, one of the nation’s most heavily traveled interstates.

ATA said raising the fuel tax would provide new revenue immediately, and require no upfront costs and warned that imposing tolls on I-95 would lead to more congestion and force some truckers off onto smaller secondary roads that aren't designed to handle increased traffic.

The Interstate Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program allows three states to impose tolls on Interstate highways. Toll-funded highway projects in Virginia might include widening I-95 between I-295 and the North Carolina border, improving pavements on more than 700 lane-miles, enhancing Intelligent Transportation Systems, widening shoulders, and installing guardrails and vehicle height detectors on bridges.