In a setback to Pennsylvania's efforts to place tolls on Interstate 80, federal highway officials have declined to approve the state's application to make I-80 a toll road.

The Federal Highway Administration returned the state's application Wednesday, without either approving or denying it, but with a series of pointed questions about why the state felt it necessary to toll the 311-mile section of I-80 from Ohio to New Jersey.

The state wants to place tolls on I-80 to help raise money to fund statewide highway and bridge repairs and as part of a broader plan to fund mass transit agencies. If it receives federal approval, the state hopes to have tolls in place by 2010.

If the federal government does not permit tolls on I-80, SEPTA and other mass-transit agencies will get $150 million a year less than promised, and highways and bridges will get $300 million a year less - a cut of 50 percent by 2010.

That would undermine the whole funding plan for transportation adopted by the legislature in July and send the state scrambling for other ways to raise money. Options could include higher gas taxes, higher fees for motor-vehicle registrations, higher transit fares, and - Gov. Rendell's favorite - leasing the turnpike to a private operator.

Pennsylvania is seeking authority to toll I-80 under a federal pilot program that permits three states to toll interstates (Virginia and Missouri have taken two of the slots) "for the purpose of reconstructing and rehabilitating interstate highway corridors that could not otherwise be adequately maintained or functionally improved without the collection of tolls."

Pennsylvania's application did not adequately meet that test, the FHWA said in its response. The state also didn't show that it met the requirement that tolls be used only for I-80 improvements, the FHWA wrote.

And the federal officials questioned how the state could describe as "operating costs" the payments that are to be made from I-80 tolls to PennDOT to fund highway and bridge repairs around the state.

The federal officials also wanted to see evidence that the state has consulted with local planning organizations and that tolls take into account "the interests of local, regional, and interstate travelers."

The most outspoken opponents of the efforts to toll I-80 have been the residents, businesses and politicians of northern Pennsylvania, along the I-80 corridor. They contend their economy will be crippled by the added costs of tolls.

State officials had hoped to get "conditional provisional approval" this month as the first phase in winning final approval to toll I-80. Final approval or disapproval is likely at least a year away.

Responding to the Pennsylvania application, King W. Gee, FHWA associate administrator for infrastructure, instructed David C. Lawton, the acting FHWA division administrator in Harrisburg, to "clarify to PennDOT and PTC [the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission] that their application has not been approved...Additionally, the FHWA is not, at this time, granting a conditional provisional approval to their application that would reserve a slot in the [pilot program] for their project."

So far, Pennsylvania is the only state that has applied for the final slot in the pilot program. "We have heard that there is interest among others," said Ian Grossman, spokesman for the FHWA.

Turnpike officials said they did not consider the federal response a setback. Turnpike chief executive Joseph Brimmeier said in a statement that "we are pleased that FHWA has sent us this request for additional information."

He said turnpike officials "fully expected there would be an ongoing dialogue between the FHWA, PennDOT and the Turnpike Commission throughout this process. We knew before we even got started that this is a lengthy process, and we are continuing to cooperate with the FHWA to provide all the data they need to make an informed decision."

Brimmeier said the turnpike's team has begun gathering much of the information requested by FHWA. A traffic and revenue study, and a separate engineering survey of Interstate 80 are on-going, he said.

And, he said, turnpike officials have met with the seven most-impacted metropolitan planning organizations across the I-80 corridor and held nine public hearings on the proposed tolls.

A leader of the opposition, U.S. Rep. John Peterson (R., Pa.) said, "I think they're in trouble."

Peterson, who met Wednesday with U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, said the federal response "should serve as a red flag to Gov. Rendell and the leaders in the General Assembly. Our state leaders must go back to the drawing board, as this hastily passed tolling scheme appears to be all but flat-lined."

In the state House, another opponent, Republican leader Rep. Sam Smith (R., Jefferson), said the state "has not yet made a clear case for tolling I-80 as the Turnpike Commission and administration would have us believe." Smith urged the Rendell administration and lawmakers to find other ways to fund transportation, including leasing the turnpike.

Rendell has revived his proposal to lease the turnpike because of the growing opposition to tolling I-80. In October, the administration received 14 proposals from 34 financial, engineering and management companies, offering their qualifications for operating the turnpike.

Smith yesterday called on Rendell to divulge specifics about the various proposals to lease the turnpike.

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com