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Raising the Stakes on Bad Drivers

2 Va. Lawmakers Urge Special Fines for Multiple Offenders to Help Fund Roads

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 23, 2004; Page B05

RICHMOND, Nov. 22 -- Some lawmakers from Northern Virginia want bad drivers to help pay for building new roads that could ease congestion.

The state could raise $140 million a year for roads, bridges, tunnels and transit by creating fines for repeat speeders and motorists driving on suspended licenses or those involved in hit-and-run accidents, the Republican legislators said. The fees would be in addition to normal speeding ticket fines and administrative costs.

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The plan is based on a similar program in New Jersey, where officials say that they have raised about $300 million over the last two years by assessing a fine on drivers who accumulate three speeding tickets over three years or other infractions.

Virginia lawmakers said that a similar plan would allow the state to add millions to its transportation trust fund or help pay off bonds for roads or rail.

Lawmakers said they would announce details of the proposed legislation at a news conference Tuesday.

"This is part of the puzzle," said Del. Thomas Davis Rust (R-Fairfax), who along with Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) helped craft the proposal. He said the exact amount of money the state would raise was still uncertain. "This alone won't solve it all . . . but we need to look for innovative approaches," Rust said.

The initiative, dubbed the "Rust-Albo Abuser Fee" in a memo circulated to lawmakers last week, is one of the growing number of transportation proposals that legislators will consider during the 2005 General Assembly session.

In their last session, lawmakers raised sales and other taxes by $1.5 billion to pay for increased spending on schools, colleges, public safety and health care. But virtually no new money was added to the state's struggling transportation program, which was forced to slash projects already on the books.

Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and leaders in the Senate and House of Delegates said last week that they do not expect the legislature to approve an increase in the gas tax, the state's primary source of road-building funds.

So that has led to other ideas. Already, Republican lawmakers in Northern Virginia have proposed a plan that would raise $5 billion over the next 20 years by borrowing against the tax revenue that residents pay on their auto insurance premiums. Last week, Warner outlined the preliminary parts of a plan to use a projected $900 million budget surplus for transportation funding. Warner's press secretary, Ellen Qualls, said the governor would wait until after he heard all the details to comment on the new proposal.

The "abuser fee" also has political overtones, as some House Republicans who opposed last year's tax and spending increases eye reelection in 2005.

"We need to be part of the solution," Albo said. "Eighty percent of the calls I get are about transportation. "Retiming lights [to improve traffic flow] is not going to do it. We need to think outside the box."

The initiative would have two components: Under Rust's provision, the increased fee would be collected by the Department of Motor Vehicles after an annual review of all driving records. Under Albo's part of the legislation, all serious traffic violations -- including hit- and-run and reckless driving -- could be hit with special civil assessments at the courthouse, thereby capturing out-of-state drivers.

The proposal engendered a mix of initial support and skepticism from lawmakers Monday.

"It's certainly a new creative idea, but I would be worried about using money for supporting bonds," said Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Stafford), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), chairman of the Courts of Justice Committee, said the proposal has at least two hurdles. "Transportation needs a stable source of funding, not something that could fluctuate," he said. "There is also a piling on concern -- whether we get to a point where people can't pay these fines."


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