Gray eyes city full of traf­fic cam­eras

Coun­cil mem­bers ques­tion merit of pro­gram’s ex­pan­sion

The Washington Times Daily - - Metro - BY TOM HOW­ELL JR.

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.”

AN­DREW HARNIK/THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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.

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