- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2007

Bad drivers in Virginia beware: Unless your driving habits change, you soon could be ponying up hefty annual payments to the state toward transportation projects.

The Republican-written transportation package includes an abuser-fee program that would charge bad drivers annual sums ranging from $100 to $1,000 for three consecutive years if they want to continue driving.

“It has two advantages,” said Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax County Republican who helped craft the transportation plan. “No. 1, it raises a whole lot of money and advantage No. 2 is it lowers the amount of offenses people commit.

“It will cause a lot of people to think twice before they start going 80 mph down the [Capital] Beltway,” he said.

Virginia lawmakers last month agreed on a massive road-and-rail deal, signaling, at least for now, the end of a bitter dispute that had created a fissure in the Republican Party for several years.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, is considering how to put his stamp on the bill by meeting with local elected officials and state Republican leaders.

Mr. Kaine has until March 26 to suggest changes to the plan. The General Assembly will consider the governor’s proposed changes at a one-day session on April 4.

If lawmakers reject his amendments, Mr. Kaine could sign the original bill or veto it.

Though the proposed abuser-fee program could result in serious consequences for some Virginians, its been somewhat lost among the philosophical differences on other issues such as whether money from the state’s general operating fund should be used to improve the state’s beleaguered transportation system.

House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong said he was concerned that the fees were too severe.

“People have less tolerance for people that break the law, but we are also not talking about someone robbing a bank either,” the Martinsville Democrat said.

The plan would, beginning July 15, fine drivers as follows:

• Driving with a suspended driver’s license: three annual payments of $250.

• Reckless driving: three annual payments of $350.

• Drunken driving: three annual payments of $750.

• Misdemeanor-related driving charge: three annual payments of $300.

• Felony-related driving charge: three annual payments of $1,000.

• Eight or more demerit points: three annual payments of $100 fine and $75 a year for each additional point.

Mr. Albo said drivers who fall into these categories show “a conscious disregard for following the law.”

“The average Joe who gets a ticket every now and then is never going to pay a dime under this,” he said.

The abuser fee is fashioned after a program the New Jersey legislature established in the early 1980s that now generates more than $130 million a year.

The Virginia plan is expected to pull in nearly $58 million in 2008, $80 million in 2009 and $108 million in 2010, according to the House Appropriations Committee.

“We’re going to let it develop,” said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican. “We think it will be more than the projections over time.”

Mr. Kaine and state lawmakers mulled over similar proposals last year, but the measures died when lawmakers could not reach a consensus on transportation after nine months of negotiations.

Like last year, some lawmakers are concerned the program would hurt poor Virginians.

They point to a report released in 2005 by the New Jersey Motor Vehicles Affordability and Fairness Task Force that showed low-income motorists were hit hardest by the program.

The report said license suspensions had “serious, albeit unintended” consequences, including motorists losing their jobs and driving without a license or insurance.

Delegate Brian J. Moran, Alexandria Democrat, said he thinks the program is unfair to low-income people.

“What you end up with are folks who are unable to pay steep fines,” Mr. Moran said yesterday. “Then their license gets suspended and they get into a black financial hole that they have a difficult time digging out of. I have grave concerns this will lead to people driving with suspended driver’s licenses, and people driving without insurance.”

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