Gray eyes city full of traffic cameras
Council members question merit of program’s expansion
Mayor Vincent C. Gray told the D.C. Council on Tuesday he hopes to cover “the entire city” with traffic cameras, providing fuel to critics who feel his pro-safety message is a smoke screen for reaping greatly needed revenue.
Mr. Gray’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2013 would close a $172 million gap through $102 million in cuts and $70 million in new revenue, including about $25 million from an expanded program of automated traffic enforcement after startup costs.
City officials insist the program is targeted at safety, but the expansion of the program in both size and types of enforcement has critics wondering where to draw the line on the hotly debated technology.
Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown said motorists expect to be ticketed for violating the law, but he cannot understand why fines have crested $100 in recent years.
“I hear the frustrations of residents around these tickets, but it’s the cost of these tickets,” Mr. Brown said after the hearing.
Mr. Gray on Tuesday attempted to address concerns about his “traffic-calming initiatives” in wide-ranging testimony before the council on his fiscal 2013 budget. The initiatives are intended to catch speeders in tunnels, motorists who zip through intersections to beat traffic lights or those who “block the box” and create gridlock, among other violations.
“Eventually, we would hope to be able to cover the entire city,” Mr. Gray said.
Council member Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat, worried the program would impose “gotcha situations.” The city, she said, should consider low fines at the outset of the program.
“I do think we’re reaching the point where people have had enough of tickets,” Ms. Bowser said.
But council member Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, said motorists can avoid the brunt of the program in all cases.
“My position is if you don’t run a red light or don’t speed, then you don’t have to worry about it,” she said.
After the hearing, the mayor highlighted the prevalence of bicyclists and pedestrians who are at risk when people drive recklessly.
“The ultimate goal of this is to make people as safe as they possibly can be, to make people think about slowing down,” he said.
Many states use automated traffic enforcement — typically to catch red-light runners or speeders — while some limit cameras’ use to school or construction zones or officer-operated machines, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Several states ban traffic cameras outright.
The conference says the District has one of the most comprehensive laws in the country, authorizing automated enforcement of all moving violations.
The nation’s foremost motorist group says the city is seeing more dollar signs from out-of-district drivers with no voice at the D.C. ballot box.
Traffic cameras generated a record $80.4 million for the District in fiscal 2010 and were on pace to exceed that total in fiscal 2011, AAA Mid-atlantic said in August after filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the city.
“Safety may be in the back seat, and revenue is in the front seat,” said Lon Anderson, managing director for the club, noting visitors buttress the city’s economy. “Instead of welcoming them with open arms, we’re welcoming them with open ticket books.”
Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy L. Lanier noted that numerous communities ask for the cameras, citing safety, and their use allows her to deploy officers in other crime-fighting capacities.
The lack of a human touch in traffic enforcement worries AAA, noting it cannot account for exigent circumstances, but city officials argue the tickets are reviewed by humans and contestable in court.
Mr. Gray’s deputy mayor for public safety, Paul Quander, said the city mulls concerns from both sides of the issue.
“There’s always a balance that is there,” Mr. Quander said.
Before the council, Mr. Gray said he is not sure whether D.C. residents would be most affected by automated traffic enforcement. He figured that drivers who are “snared, if you will,” on the outer edges of the city would mostly be from outside the District.
The police department’s contingent of mobile cameras can be moved around the city, so enforcement areas can changed, Chief Lanier said.
To prove the measures are working, Mr. Anderson said, city officials should be projecting a decline in speed-camera revenue.
“Did you hear anyone say that?” Mr. Anderson said. “No, they project 30 million more in revenue.”
The mayor’s budget director, Eric Goulet, did testify it would be “a good thing” to see those numbers go down.
“But unfortunately,” he added, the city’s chief financial officer projects “we will be getting this revenue and they’ve worked closely with [D.C. police] to certify it.”
Before the D.C. Council on Tuesday, (from left) Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, Mayor Vincent C. Gray and budget director Eric Goulet arrive to testify on the mayor’s fiscal 2013 budget. Mr. Gray’s budget proposal would close a $172 million gap through $102 million in cuts and $70 million in new revenue.