- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The District’s expanding program of traffic-enforcement cameras hit a political pothole yesterday as council member Carol Schwartz filed a bill calling for more realistic speed limits on D.C.’s busiest streets and highways.

The bill, which could be presented to the rest of the council as early as Tuesday, is critical of Mayor Anthony A. Williams, the biggest proponent of the traffic cameras, and speed limits that some motorists and transportation officials consider unfair.

Mrs. Schwartz, chair of the council’s committee on Public Works and the Environment, held a hearing yesterday on the bill, which was introduced by council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, and co-sponsored by Mrs. Schwartz and Sharon Ambrose, Ward 6 Democrat.

“As I drive around the city, [speed limits] seem out of sync with the nature of the road,” said Mrs. Schwartz, at-large Republican. “The one that drives me crazy is New York Avenue. It’s a divided highway, not a pedestrian in sight … it’s a blatant ‘gotcha,’ and that’s what gets us legitimate criticism.”

Mrs. Schwartz, at-large Republican, said the legislation would make sure a speed limit is in accordance with the type of road. She said some thoroughfares resemble freeways, such as Benning Road in Northeast and M Street in Southeast, but have speed limits as low as 25 mph.

“If you’re doing 40 mph in a school zone, I do want to get you. But a four-lane highway with a 35 mph speed limit, and there’s no school there? It calls for a re-evaluation.”

Mr. Mendelson said yesterday that public perception of the program has soured because of dangerously low speed limits that criminalize drivers.

“There’s places where, if you drive the speed limit, you’re a hazard,” he said. “If people felt that the speed limits were fair, it would ameliorate many motorists’ concerns that it’s about revenue generation.”

Dan Tangherlini, director of the city’s transportation department, defended the cameras, drawing a correlation between the cameras and traffic deaths.

“This is a very effective program,” Mr. Tangherlini said. “We’ve seen decreases in traffic fatalities every year since” the cameras’ implementation, he said.

Mr. Tangherlini said that various agencies — including Metropolitan Police Department, the D.C. Department of Transportation, the Department of Public Works and Metro — will work together to evaluate the fairness and effectiveness of speed limits in the enforcement zones.

Clyde Howard Jr., a Northwest resident who spoke at yesterday’s hearing, said the city’s speed limits are “archaic and simply out of place with the automobiles of the 21st century. To continue to maintain such speed limits of today only adds to the belief that the recent speed cameras are reminiscent of the old speed traps that were reported by AAA in years past.”

Council member Marion Barry, who also attended the hearing, agreed that posted limits need to be fair, but said he supports catching speeding motorists.

“It’s a safety program,” Mr. Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, said. “The revenue, it’s a byproduct. It means a lot of people are breaking the law.”

According to Metropolitan Police Department reports, the number of motorists caught by the city’s 10 cameras has declined since January 2004. The reports also show that 3.1 percent of the 1.1 million vehicles monitored in the enforcement zones in April were breaking the speed limit.

The agency has collected more than $8 million in ticket revenue this year, with more than $2 million of that in April.

Since August 2001, speed cameras have generated more than $74 million in fines. Red light cameras fines have totaled more than $31 million since 1999.

The bill also called for fines collected through the devices to be redirected to the Highway Trust Fund, though Mrs. Schwartz said she would suggest a revision to Mr. Mendelson because of concerns that fund could lead to conflicts of interest.

Mrs. Schwartz also questioned a stipulation in the recently extended contract with Affiliated Computer Services of Dallas, which manages the city’s automated-traffic enforcement program. The company splits the fines with the District, which deposits the revenue into the general fund.

The contract extension, approved earlier this month, gives the company roughly $4.4 million to process tickets and $7.8 million to continue running the speed and red-light cameras.

The pay plan provides ACS a fixed monthly fee of $651,735, but it includes extra money for the company if the number of citations issued exceeds 53,750 per month.

ACS can earn an extra $19,500 to $23,000 for every group of 2,500 citations above the threshold. According to the contract, the additional cameras could result in more than 130,300 citations issued per month.

Inspector Kevin Keegan, who testified on behalf of the Metropolitan Police Department, said the threshold provision in the ACS contract is temporary. It was included because of uncertainty over how many tickets would be issued and police wanted to ensure that ACS would be properly compensated, but he noted that the program has yet to surpass that monthly threshold.


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