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AAA says D.C. ‘addicted to revenue’ from tickets

- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2012

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray's plan to raise $30 million by expanding a traffic-camera program is evidence the city is "addicted to revenue" and balancing its books on the backs of out-of-District drivers with no say in city hall, AAA Mid-Atlantic says.

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 a massive uptick in automated traffic enforcement and expanded hours for alcohol sales.

While bar owners are expected to cheer the mayor's position toward drinking hours, his "traffic-calming initiatives" are getting jeers from the nation's predominant motorist club.

"We're in a very slippery slope now," said John B. Townsend II, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "I think this ruse has been exposed."

Mr. Townsend, who plans to testify against the measure before the D.C. Council, said the organization supports automated traffic enforcement for safety and to assist police, but it decries measures aimed at filling city coffers and has long opposed the way cameras are used in the District.

The mayor's budget allows the Metropolitan Police Department to expand its camera program through photo and laser-radar equipment, including "speed on green" cameras that catch vehicles speeding through intersections. It would also fund pilot projects to catch speeders in tunnels, motorists who "block the box" and create gridlock, and motorists who violate a pedestrian's right of way.

The initiatives are expected to bring in about $25 million in net revenue, after the city spends $5.8 million to implement the additions.

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.

Supporters have long held that the program is first and foremost about public safety.

The controversy over traffic cameras is not exclusive to the District.

Automated enforcement efforts are forcing states across the nation to weigh the noble cause of reducing death and injury on public roadways against the legality and legitimacy of the technology. Last year, lawmakers in 28 states debated more than 100 bills regarding automated enforcement, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.

The result is a patchwork of state and local laws designed to either catch speeders and red-light runners or prohibit automated enforcement from the get-go. Nine states have passed laws that prohibit the use of cameras to enforce traffic laws, with a few exceptions for school zones or camera equipment used by an officer, according to the conference.

The District joins Colorado at the other end of the spectrum by granting the authority to enforce all moving violations with cameras, and not just red-light running and speeding, according to the conference. Tennessee also allows camera enforcement of some traffic violations.

Mr. Townsend said automated enforcement is less nimble than normal police surveillance because it cannot account for peripheral circumstances that might lead to infractions, such as a pedestrian who darts across the street or drivers urging the motorists ahead of them to cross busy intersections. He also thinks the District is taking advantage of motorists who have no political clout in the budget process.

"They know the plurality of drivers who get these tickets live outside the city," Mr. Townsend said. "So they're easy pickins."

Mr. Gray's spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro, defended the administration's intentions Monday in a rebuttal of Mr. Townsend's comments.

"AAA is there to advocate for motorists. The mayor is there to advocate for residents, motorists and nonmotorists alike," Mr. Ribeiro said. "A lot of drivers come through the city like it's an expressway, but it is not. There are neighborhoods. People live here."

The mayor's budget faces sunnier, although still controversial, prospects in allowing city bars to stay open until 3 a.m. on weekdays and 4 a.m. on weekends. Under the plan, stores that sell alcohol will be allowed to open at 7 a.m. instead of 9 a.m.

Additionally, Mr. Gray's proposal allows bars to stay open until 4 a.m. every night in the week surrounding the presidential inaugurations of 2013 and 2017 and lets restaurants over those periods serve customers around the clock.

The alcohol-related measures are expected to generate $5.3 million in sales tax revenue. Yet neighborhood groups will likely resist them, citing boisterous partying well into the morning, and Mr. Gray said his administration has not conferred with Metro about the discrepancy in service that would have trains stopping an hour before last call on weekends.

"I think it will be seriously controversial," said council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat. "I can't see myself supporting it, but the problem is it's not just a policy issue - you have to plug the budget hole."

A spokesman for the D.C. Chamber of Commerce said it is pleased with the mayor's budget for resisting taxes and fees in its quest for balance between program spending and revenue. On the alcohol proposal, "The chamber generally believes in easing the regulatory burden and cutting red tape in D.C.," spokesman Max R. Farrow said.

Besides generating money for the city and the bars, later hours would allow for "more of a soft closing," said Bill Duggan, owner of Madam's Organ Blues Bar in Adams Morgan.

Mr. Duggan said patrons tend to leave the bars between 1:30 a.m. and 3 a.m., so an extra hour would lead to a more orderly exodus on the streets.

"By closing every place in town at 3, it leaves literally everyone in the street at the same hour," he said. "I'm sure that most, if not all, bars would support this because you're not forced to stay open."

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