By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
RICHMOND, June 26 -- Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and legislative leaders sought to respond Tuesday to a growing backlash over plans to make some Virginia drivers pay hefty surcharges on traffic tickets to finance road improvements.
Starting Sunday, Virginia will assess a so-called "abuser fee" on traffic offenses committed by habitually bad drivers as well as any resident convicted of a misdemeanor or felony driving offense. A charge of reckless driving, for example, would cost $1,050.
The fees were tucked into the $1 billion-a-year transportation bill approved by the General Assembly and signed by Kaine (D) this spring. They were intended to be a partial substitute to a statewide tax increase, which the Republican-controlled House opposed.
Speaking Tuesday on WTOP radio, Kaine said the fees will allow the state to ease gridlock while encouraging motorists to drive responsibly.
"I don't have the ability to give driving instructions to 7 1/2 million Virginians, but hopefully the prospect of stiff fines will make people drive right," said Kaine, who has been pushing for the fees since taking office last year.
But several callers to WTOP's monthly "Ask the Governor" program said the fees are so steep they will consider moving to Maryland. Virginia has long been considered the lower-tax alternative to the Free State.
"It looks like it is going to place an additional, pretty stiff burden, especially on some of the poorer drivers in the state of Virginia," a caller from Centreville told the governor. "What is your view of Virginia drivers changing their residence to Maryland or some other state to try to get around this?"
Since the Virginia Supreme Court published an analysis of the "civil remediation fees" this month, the blogosphere and talk radio have been buzzing.
"I've had people from all around the state calling and yelling at me," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), one of architects of the plan to assess the fees, which will eventually raise $65 million a year for transportation projects.
The mini-revolt over the fees underscores how the public is only starting to fully examine the details of the transportation deal, a compromise that ended 18 months of partisan bickering. House leaders refused to consider a statewide increase in the gasoline tax or sales tax on the purchase of a vehicle. Legislative leaders and Kaine instead agreed on a series of higher fees as well as regional tax increases.
"Finding various fees from different sources that were not a general tax increase was the only kind of transportation plan that could survive the General Assembly this session," said Sen. James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr. (R-Fairfax).
But legislators, who are up for reelection Nov. 6, are getting an earful.
House Speaker William J. Howell's hometown newspaper, the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, published an editorial Monday that said, "The General Assembly has slipped one over us. . . . these fees . . . are simply outrageous."
In a response the paper plans to publish Wednesday, Howell (R-Stafford) said the "abuser fees . . . have a proven record of increasing road safety and supplementing transportation revenues" and will impact "those who most flagrantly abuse the rules of our roads."
The fees on bad drivers work like this: In addition to the fine, the state of Virginia will issue a bill for a surcharge when someone is convicted of a serious traffic violation, such as driving on a suspended license or driving while intoxicated.
The surcharge for a first-time DWI offense will be $2,250, payable in three installments over two years.
Drivers with less serious charges will also be charged fees if they acquire eight or more points on their driving record.
They will be hit with $100 for the eight points and $75 for every point above eight. The surcharge will affect only state residents because, unlike a fine, the state doesn't have the authority to assess a vehicle fee on out-of-state motorists.
Albo, an attorney who specializes in traffic cases, said the vast majority of Virginia residents won't have to worry about paying the fees. Albo, who is unopposed this fall, said just 2 percent of drivers consistently have more than eight points on their record, and people can get a five-point reduction by taking an online driver safety course.
"The people who don't break the law [will] pay nothing, and the people who do break the law [will] pay more," said Albo, noting that drivers not charged with a serious offense would have to get the equivalent of four tickets before they would be charged the abuser fees.
Even so, the public's reaction to the fees has become fodder for Democrats who had pushed Kaine to veto the transportation bill.
Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said the transportation bill "is one of the most flawed pieces of legislation we've ever had."
"You are hanging that fine on the people of Virginia but not on anyone from out of state," Saslaw said. "If their kid goes out speeding, the parents are going to get stuck paying that."
Kaine noted the transportation package, when fully implemented, will double the amount of money Virginia spends on state highway construction projects.
"People overwhelmingly were saying, 'Fix traffic problems.' It takes money to do it," Kaine said.