WASHINGTON — A newly launched grassroots campaign is pushing to prevent the Virginia Department of Transportation from tolling the state's portion of Interstate 95, an option Virginia is exploring under a federal pilot program.

The campaign is being coordinated by the National Association of Truck Stop Operators, the American Trucking Associations and the Virginia Trucking Association. It is similar to one that is opposing tolling I-95 in North Carolina.

Virginia, North Carolina, and Missouri were each given the go-ahead to develop plans for interstate tolling under a U.S. Department of Transportation pilot program.

North Carolina Reps. G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat, and Renee Ellmers, a Republican, have introduced separate bills aimed at prohibiting tolling of I-95 in that state.

"Tolls on I-95 are the most inefficient way to collect revenue for transportation," said Dale Bennett, president of the Virginia Trucking Association. "They will create road congestion, divert traffic to roads less suited to handle more cars and trucks and hurt Virginia's ability to attract and retain businesses in local communities along the I-95 corridor."

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and state Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton have said that there is more than $600 million of immediate improvements and repairs needed along the commonwealth's stretch of the highway, and falling federal revenues will no longer cover that amount.

The tolls could generate between $30 million and $60 million each year, McDonnell said in a letter to U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood during the state's application to join the pilot program in 2010.

According to a June presentation given by a VDOT representative to the Sussex County, Va. Board of Supervisors, the road faces a $9.6 billion funding gap over the next 25 years. Sussex County is one of the counties that I-95 runs through.

Tolling would not affect any of Virginia's other transportation spending or bonding, but would free up some of its share of federal money for other roads. VDOT hopes to apply for final approval to toll I-95 this year, and finalize the agreement by winter, according to its presentation to the Sussex County board.

Sussex County board member Eric Fly said he disagrees with the plan's timeline for final approval because it would come before public comments are received in the fall.

"The whole process is backwards," he said.  "VDOT isn't going to give the public any time to voice their opinion prior to submitting their final application to the Federal Highway Administration.  They clearly know that the public is against the idea and are therefore trying to jam it through before any public comment."

The program remains conditional and provisional at this time.

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