Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey yesterday outlined a plan to expand the District’s use of speed and red-light cameras, but was not aware of details to reimburse a private contractor for issuing as many as 103,000 traffic-camera citations a month.

Chief Ramsey said the police department is preparing to add at least 10 red-light cameras to the 39 devices already installed at city intersections. He said police also will add several speed cameras, including two new vans to monitor motorists in construction zones.

“We are implementing these program expansions with the strong support of the communities who will benefit from them,” he said at a special D.C. Council hearing on the department’s use of the automated technology.

The expansion comes two months after city officials agreed in a contract extension to pay more money to ACS State & Local Solutions if the company mails out more traffic citations. The Washington Times reported on the contract yesterday.

Under a new arrangement, the District is paying ACS a fixed fee of $651,735 per month, according to the six-month contract extension approved in December. The previous monthly fee was $759,992.

However, the contract extension includes a new provision that says if ACS handles more than 53,750 citations in any given month, the city must pay the company an extra $19,500 to $23,000 for every group of 2,500 citations that exceeds the monthly threshold.

The arrangement has prompted criticism from AAA Mid-Atlantic, which says the payment plan provides an incentive to the contractor to increase the number of citations.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the council’s Judiciary Committee, said such questions could undermine public support for the traffic-camera program.

“The devil is largely in the details,” AAA spokesman Lon Anderson said. “The public needs to be assured that this is all about public safety.”

Chief Ramsey said was not aware of the new provision, but said he was willing to look into the matter and report back to Mr. Mendelson. He said it’s possible that the department could renegotiate the plan when the agreement expires in May.

“I have to admit I’m not familiar with that language,” the police chief said of the city’s new payment arrangement with ACS.

Chief Ramsey disputed the notion that police consider revenue — whether to ACS or the city government — in operating the automated camera program.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “I could care less about revenue, as far as I’m concerned.

“The fines that are assessed to aggressive drivers are purely voluntary on their part,” Chief Ramsey said. “And it is completely within the power of those drivers to never be ticketed or fined again.”

He also said, “As violations go down at each location, so do the number of tickets issued and fines collected.”

However, city records show that officials are projecting a huge increase in the number of citations issued each month.

The Metropolitan Police Department’s latest monthly statistics show about 32,000 speed-camera citations and about 8,000 red-light violations per month — well below the 53,750 citation threshold. Yet contracting records predict a sharp increase this year in the number of tickets to motorists as police expand the program.

“If the city were to roll out everything contemplated in the District’s plan, the city could be issuing over 103,300 photo-enforcement tickets per month,” the contract states.

Under that scenario, the city would pay ACS more than $1.3 million, according to the contract.

Since August 2001, speed cameras have been in use at more than 70 designated spots throughout the District. The program has generated more than $63 million in fines. Fines from red-light cameras at 39 intersections have totaled more than $28 million since 1999.

About two-thirds of the District’s traffic-camera citations are issued to Maryland and Virginia residents.

Yesterday, Mr. Mendelson seized on a recent letter that D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams sent to the council seeking approval of the ACS contract. The mayor’s letter said there was “an urgent need to ensure the continued processing of District tickets and the collection of District revenues.” It did not mention public safety.

“That letter and that quote generated some controversy because it said nothing about safety,” Mr. Mendelson said. “It was not prudent for the mayor to write that letter.”

Edward D. Reiskin, deputy mayor for public safety, warned against drawing any conclusions from Mr. Williams’ letter.

“I think the phraseology could have been strong and better,” he said, adding that the mayor views the program as a way “to make District streets safe.”

Public testimony on the city’s traffic program was split yesterday.

“Photo-enforcement technology supplements police work and allows law enforcement to focus on other crimes,” said Leslie Blakey, executive director of the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running, an industry trade group.

Laurie Collins, president of the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Alliance, said she favors the technology because the revenues generated by the District’s automated cameras “pale in comparison to the true cost of aggressive driving in our city.”

But D.C. resident Alan Nichols called the program “a cheap way for the government to make money.”

“I would like to have a major study on waste and fraud in the District government,” Mr. Nichols said. “If you need to make money, eliminate the waste.”

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