Widespread opposition from Virginia drivers over the state's recently imposed abusive driver fees, which range from $750 for driving on a suspended license to $3,000 for motor vehicle-related felonies, may soon apply to out-of-state drivers as well, lawmakers say.
The new regulations, which Virginia lawmakers designed to raise $65 million for much-needed transportation projects, took effect July 1 and is at the nexus of a conflict that has resulted in differing court opinions and a patchwork of laws throughout Virginia.
All 140 seats in the Virginia General Assembly are up for election this November, which has led many state lawmakers, sensing the unpopularity of the fees, to distance themselves from Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who sponsored the legislation. The Assembly is planning to take up the legislation once again when it returns to session in January, after the November elections.
Howell and Kaine have said they will rework the legislation to include out-of-state drivers. In early August, justices in Henrico County and the Richmond City courts threw out some cases involving the fees, arguing the fines violate the Constitution's 14th amendment ensuring equal protection under the law because they do not apply to non-residents.
But Judge L.A. Harris Jr. of the Henrico Circuit Court overturned the decision from his county's lower court, saying a rational basis exists for treating drivers differently and that any legal challenge should not be based on whether the fees are reasonable.
In his decision, Harris wrote, "It logically follows that Virginians make up a greater percentage of dangerous drivers than do non-residents since Virginians make up the greater percentage of drivers on Virginia's highways."
The success of some of these legal challenges is unprecedented: Four other states with similar abusive driver fees -- Texas, New Jersey, New York and Michigan -- have not faced arguments from defense lawyers invoking the equal protection argument, according to The Washington Times.
The most serious offenses, including DUI, can approach $3,000. Misdemeanors will cost $300 yearly and felonies will cost $1,000, also once every three years. Reckless driving, which includes driving 20 mph over the speed limit or 80 mph regardless of the speed limit, will cost drivers more than $1,000, at $350 a year.
The funds generated by the new fees are deposited into the Highway Maintenance and Operating Fund, which is the "fund that the commonwealth uses to maintain all of its roadways," said Virginia Assistant Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue. Donohue also noted that state law requires the Virginia Department of Transportation to perform necessary maintenance before beginning any new construction.
The new fees are only a part of the new transportation bill, designed to generate about $3 billion in revenue to be used to alleviate the transportation bottlenecks in Northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads area. Much of the new revenue will be generated by sale of bonds.
The "proceeds when bonds are sold will be used on primary and secondary systems projects," said Laura Farmer, a budget manager with the VDOT.
Currently, more than 175,000 people have signed an online petition demanding repeal of the fees. The average worker who commutes to Washington, D.C., by car spends 67 hours stuck in traffic every year, according to a 2004 study by the Texas Transportation Institute. With nearly half of the suburban Washington population living in Northern Virginia, transportation has been an important political topic in Virginia for several years.
The law was originally intended to apply to all drivers in Virginia, regardless of where their driver's licenses were issued, and the funds were to be deposited in the Capital Projects Fund rather than the Highway Maintenance and Operating Fund.
But the law was amended because of concerns about the difficulty of collecting the fees from out-of-state drivers. When the bill came to Kaine's desk for approval, he removed the 14-word clause that would have made the fees applicable to non-resident drivers. Kaine's revised bill was overwhelmingly passed by lawmakers in April 2007.
The new regulations do not affect law enforcement in any way. "Our standards haven't changed," said Capt. Beth Simonds, University of Richmond deputy chief of police. According to Simonds, local police departments and the state highway patrol have no incentive to stop more drivers because they receive no money from criminal fines.