Monday, March 29, 2004

The D.C. government will double the number of photo-radar cameras, increase licensing and parking fees and enforce traffic laws more vigorously as part of a plan to raise non-tax revenue by nearly $47 million next year.

A spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, which has described the city’s administration of the automated-enforcement program as a “shakedown,” says the District has made some progress in addressing the organization’s concerns. But the fact that the additional cameras were first brought to light in a budget document leads to questions about the city’s motives.

“It’s completely backwards to let the dollars drive the decisions about public safety,” says Deborah DeYoung. “Cameras do improve safety when they’re used right. The only issue for us is whether this is a back-door route to a commuter tax the city couldn’t get in the front door.”

Beginning today, police will write tickets to drivers caught speeding in the 600 block of Florida Avenue NE.

Motorists’ fines and fees are projected to raise $21 million as part of an overall plan to boost city revenue by nearly $47 million in fiscal 2005. The plan was outlined in a confidential report that Mayor Anthony A. Williams circulated among D.C. Council members last week.

The Council voted in July 2002 to exempt itself from its own parking regulations. The measure, coming after a year in which traffic enforcement officers had cracked down on illegally parked Council members’ cars, was sponsored by Council member Carol Schwartz and supported by Council members Kevin Chavous, Jack Evans, Sandra Allen, Adrian Fenty, David Catania, Jim Graham, Harold Brazil, Vincent Orange and Linda W. Cropp.

Phil Mendelson, Kathy Patterson and Sharon Ambrose voted no.

The exemption, approved but criticized at the time by Mr. Williams, extended to Council members the same parking privileges enjoyed by members of Congress — including the freedom to park in bus zones, in restricted spaces near intersections, at building entrances and on restricted residential streets. It also freed Council members from having to put money into parking meters.

The biggest single revenue generator will be the introduction of a 1.4 percent streetlight maintenance fee that is projected to raise more than $10 million and will be passed on to consumers through their Potomac Electric Power Co. bills.

The fees also include a projected $1.8 million for doubling the cost of residential parking permits from $15 to $30 for homeowners with one or two cars, $2.6 million for consolidating parking-meter fees at either 50 cents or $1 per hour, and $754,000 for increasing driver’s license fees from $39 to $45.

The Department of Public Works is expected to increase rush-hour towing to bring in an additional $464,000 and improve booting enforcement to raise $1.78 million.

The city will net more than $7.2 million by doubling its fleet of cars equipped with photo-radar cameras from six to 12. However, the projected gross of $13.7 million might be a conservative estimate. The current fleet of six automated radar cameras generated $19.8 million in the 12 months ending February. Since its inception in July 2001, the speed cameras have generated more than $45 million.

Along with the additional speed cameras, the city plans to raise $624,000 by installing 10 more cameras to catch red-light runners, bringing the total of such cameras in the city to 49. Those cameras, first used in August 1999, have raised $25 million.

Mr. Mendelson, who proposed legislation last year that would divert revenue generated by automated enforcement from the city’s general fund to the Highway Trust Fund, says city officials should not become dependent on money from fines.

“I think enforcement is a good thing, but I think balancing the budget on enforcement is not a good thing,” says Mr. Mendelson, at-large Democrat. “We need people to comply with our rules, with our laws, but we don’t need to just look at ticket-writing as a revenue generator, which we are doing.”

Mr. Williams declined to talk about his budget until he releases it today.

Police say the cameras have cut the number of speeding violations since they were installed in July 2001.

Since the District began installing the red-light and speed cameras, the percentage of drivers caught speeding in photo-radar enforcement zones has declined from 31 percent in July 2001 to 6 percent last month, police say.

Police and residents who live near the new photo-radar camera on Florida Avenue said that camera has encouraged motorists to slow down.

Four speeding-related fatalities — three crashes on Oct. 7, 1998, Jan. 4, 1999, and Nov. 17, 2001, and one pedestrian death on Feb. 27, 1999 — have occurred in the area.

“[Motorists] have slowed down,” says Keith Dove, 16, who lives across the street from where the camera is stationed.

“It’s a good thing,” Urlick Evans, 28, said of the camera as he walked down Florida Avenue yesterday. “On Friday, it’s bad. People are trying to get home. There’s a lot of road rage.”

In the past, a police officer often was assigned to the area and parked in a Gallaudet driveway to chase down the most notorious speeders, Mr. Evans says.

Police activated the camera on Feb. 27. Police said they mailed an average of 585 warnings a day to speeding drivers, or more than 20,000 notices since it was activated.

Starting today, however, owners of vehicles caught speeding on that road will receive tickets along with photographs of their vehicles, the license-plate numbers and the speeds recorded by the radar.

Motorists caught driving up to 10 mph over the 25-mph speed limit will be required to pay a $30 fine. Those caught doing 26 to 30 mph over the limit will be ordered to pay up to a $200 fine.

“It seemed to be working fine,” police spokesman Kevin Morison said yesterday. The camera is taking pictures of speeding vehicles 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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