- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2008

Local street sweepers will soon turn into spies.

Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone, but cameras have been perched outside the cabs of the District of Columbia’s tractor-sized sweepers. The drivers can activate the cameras at the push of a button and take pictures of parked cars in their way.

As the brushes whirl, parking tickets can be processed. Sweepers in Chicago and buses in San Francisco are already serving as ticket makers.

Now, that’s really cleaning up!

For the moment, the District of Columbia is holding off ticketing vehicles via street-sweeper cameras. The Department of Public Works says it’s not fully ready. But when that happens, Tracey Patten, who spends much of his time keeping D.C. streets clean, will expand his role to law enforcement.

Mr. Patten said the cameras are easy to use but add to the driver’s responsibilities. Drivers must pause the camera when making a turn or on a street not scheduled for cleaning, so pictures are not taken of cars parked legally.

San Francisco and Chicago have begun similar efforts. San Francisco began using video-enforcement cameras on city buses in January to catch drivers double-parked in public transit-only lanes, although an initial proposal included putting cameras on sweepers as well. The program - inspired by one begun in London 10 years ago - was approved by the state Legislature and signed into law last year by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.

The Chicago City Council in July approved an ordinance allowing cameras on street sweepers. The city has six camera-equipped sweepers and is now testing them in a pilot project, but not yet issuing tickets.

“What we’re trying to do is now make sure that from a technological and operational standpoint everything meshes,” said Matt Smith, a spokesman for Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation.

The District’s street sweepers were supposed to start ticketing cars parked in cleaning zones last month, after the D.C. Council in June passed legislation allowing enforcement cameras on the machines.

“We just want to wait until the process is flawless,” said agency spokeswoman Nancee Lyons.

AAA Mid-Atlantic, the motorists group, says the so-called Sweepercam initiative is more about cleaning out drivers’ wallets than cleaning city streets.

D.C. leaders insist the objective is the latter. But the plan eventually could bring in nearly a half-million dollars in monthly revenue, depending on how motorists comply with parking regulations, according to city estimates.

The District has issued only warning notices to motorists. Two camera-equipped sweepers on different routes took pictures resulting in 1,766 warnings from Aug. 4 through Oct. 21.

The agency had expected to begin issuing tickets Oct. 14. But Miss Lyons said the department was still training drivers, installing the cameras and testing the ticketing process.

The agency planned to have seven sweepers outfitted with cameras by the end of October but will continue issuing only warnings until Nov. 28, when residential street sweeping is suspended for the winter.

Major commercial corridors in the city are cleaned year-round overnight, but the city still will issue only warnings on roads where parking restrictions are in place, Miss Lyons said.

“We don’t have an exact date for when tickets will be issued, but we suspect - as leaf and snow season approaches - that it will not be this year,” Miss Lyons said.

The program expands an automated enforcement network already familiar to those who speed and run red lights. The city also operates 74 surveillance cameras on light poles and buildings in high-crime neighborhoods.

The new initiative is necessary to keep the streets clean, officials say, because parking-control officers enforce street-sweeping regulations only 20 percent of the time. The city plans to have all of its 20 street sweepers eventually outfitted with cameras.

But John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said that such a widespread program raises questions about whether the cameras will be used to generate additional revenue for the District, which is dealing with a $131 million budget shortfall.

“This expansion at this time really raises the specter … that this is there to generate more revenue than anything else,” Mr. Townsend said.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a Democrat, said Sweepercam is “an effort to improve the city’s ability to clean streets by reducing the number of parked cars blocking cleaning routes, allowing cleaner streets for District residents.”

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, chairman of the council’s Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, said adding more cameras for city government use is a delicate balancing act.

“On the one hand, people shouldn’t be violating our regulations,” said Mr. Mendelson, at-large Democrat. “On the other hand, many people feel the government is a little too zealous about enforcement, when there are many other services which need resources.”

Council member Jim Graham, chairman of the Committee on Public Works and the Environment - which has oversight of DPW - said he would prefer that such parking enforcement operations be handled by the D.C. Department of Transportation.

But he said public works is capable of running the camera program because of its familiarity with parking regulation - the agency also employs the city’s parking enforcement officers.

“They have been doing it,” said Mr. Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, “And so there’s an experience. And DDOT has its hands full with so many other things.”

The cameras cost $37,000 each. The system uses photo-light sensing, character recognition and GPS technology to spot parking scofflaws and fix their locations.

Sweeper drivers activate the devices with a pause and resume button when they clean a designated street. The cameras then take pictures after sensing the reflections of the license plates.

Mr. Patten, said the department trains employees in monthlong class, and drivers learn how to use the cameras by operating the two initially equipped with the devices.

Scheduled street-cleaning service takes place during spring, summer and fall in neighborhoods where residents request the service. Signs prohibit parking along curbs during a two-hour window while the service occurs, and violators caught by the cameras will receive a $30 citation in the mail once tickets are issued.

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