D.C. lawmakers on Tuesday signaled they will lower fines for speeders and other scofflaws caught by traffic cameras even as the city expands the program across the city — a trade-off that reflects the fragile business of letting machines issue tickets instead of live officers.
The D.C. Council gave preliminary approval to a bill that decreases most tickets by $50 for those who drive 10 to 25 mph over the limit, passing the legislation on first reading ahead of a final vote later this month. One of the bill's sponsors, Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, said the prevalence of cameras is more significant than the level of the fine.
"The thing that assures the highest compliance with traffic laws is the certainty that violators will be caught," she said from the dais at city hall on Tuesday.
The bill also orders Mayor Vincent C. Gray to evaluate existing speed limits around the city during the next year and, within six months, submit his plans for expanding automated traffic enforcement in the city.
Praised as a life-saver and decried as a predatory moneymaker, traffic camera programs are a slippery issue for lawmakers across the country. Cities and states must weigh public safety benefits against detractors who say the cameras are prone to inaccuracy and designed to fill government coffers.
Officials in Baltimore said they no longer have full confidence in the traffic cameras installed around the city after an investigation by The Baltimore Sun showed a series of motorists who should not have received tickets, based on the camera's own photos.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in towns from Illinois to Florida are considering whether they should reconfigure or shut down their red-light camera programs because they are not worth the cost, a move the Los Angeles City Council acted on in March, according to the Los Angeles Times. It was not the first traffic camera program to see an untimely death, after Arizona — an early adopter of automated enforcement — decided in 2010 to shut down its cameras after vandalism and an outcry about the tickets from residents.
Despite backlash across the country, a bevy of "Gucci-loafered lobbyists" are selling the safety and revenue benefits of automated enforcement to local governments on behalf of vendors who seek lucrative contracts to set up and maintain the cameras, said John B. Townsend, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic's Washington office.
"It's the money," he said Tuesday. "And you have a very powerful vendor class in this country."
Mr. Townsend puts the nation's capital in the vanguard of traffic camera programs, especially when it comes to the city's return on its dollar.
D.C. lawmakers are putting their final stamps on a proposal that would decrease the fine for speeding by 11 to 15 mph from $125 to $75; for traveling 16 to 20 mph over the limit from $150 to $100; and for traveling 21 to 25 mph over the limit from $200 to $150. A motorist speeding 25 mph or more would still be ticketed for $250.
The bill, which also lowers the fines for blocking an intersection, failing to give right-of-way to a pedestrian or turning right on red without stopping or where it is prohibited, is expected to be up for a final vote at the next legislative session.
But the mayor upstaged the council last month by lowering the fines for speed-related infractions through regulatory action, although not as steeply as the council will. Under Mr. Gray's order, violators caught traveling up to 10 mph too fast are now fined $50 and those speeding 11 to 15 mph above the limit will be fined $100. However, motorists who exceed the limit by 25 mph or more will face a harsher fine of $300 instead of $250.
Mr. Gray had inserted a revenue provision in his fiscal 2013 budget that expands the use of automated traffic enforcement to speeders in tunnels, drivers who roll through stop signs and motorists who race through intersections to beat red lights. The measure, which was forecast to bring in an additional $25 million this fiscal year, was among a series of initiatives designed to ensure a balanced budget.
The mayor's budget team said automated traffic enforcement generated $27 million in higher-than-projected revenue in fiscal 2012. They still expect to bring in additional revenue from the cameras in the coming year, despite lowering fines. The mayor wants to dedicate $1.8 million of the funds toward hiring additional D.C. police officers, bringing the city's force to 4,000 officers.
Conversely, the District's chief financial officer says the council's proposal will cost the city $95 million over four years, prompting the mayor to say that there is no way to pay for it and that it cannot take effect.
"That's kind of irresponsible," Mr. Gray told reporters Monday. "Whenever I did legislation, I tried to figure out where the funding was coming from, so when the bill was passed we hopefully had identified the dollars that would support the legislation."
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Tom Howell Jr. covers politics for The Washington Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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