Record traffic camera revenue a boon for D.C. budget

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Photo - Traffic camera (Examiner file photo)
Traffic camera (Examiner file photo)
Local,DC,Alan Blinder

When D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray proposed his budget for the fiscal year that ended Sunday, city officials estimated the District would rake in tens of millions of dollars from speed and red light cameras.

The District ended up making a lot more than it anticipated, and the extra cash helped D.C. rack up a surplus that Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi estimated on Friday would be at least $140 million.

According to Gandhi, a $23 million surge in camera ticket revenue late in the fiscal year helped make it happen. Final statistics weren't immediately available, but through July, the city had hauled in nearly $65 million through the cameras, records show. Last year, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic, D.C. collected $55 million during its full 12-month cycle of "automated traffic enforcement."

No commonwealth of cameras
Virginia law restricts the use of cameras for traffic enforcement. Municipalities can use cameras to ticket for speeding, but not for running red lights.

The District is not the only cash-strapped local government that has turned to cameras to improve the safety of pedestrians and motorists -- and, critics say, the health of its bottom line.

"Cameras are contributing to decreasing traffic crashes and slowing would-be speeders," said Christopher Falkenhagen, a spokesman for AAA. "Our concern is that the District has moved beyond using these cameras as a safety measure and is instead using them to raise revenue."

Montgomery County has taken in roughly $30 million in speed camera-based fines since the 2009 fiscal year and expects another $5 million infusion next year. All told, the county is forecasting a nearly $14 million boost from all camera-based enforcement.

Prince George's County is also seeing a boon from the cameras. Earlier this year, officials there predicted they'd take in more than $8 million from traffic cameras, double their initial projection.

But the District has deployed the most prolific program, and the city is expecting another lucrative year.

When Gray rolled out his budget for the 2013 fiscal year, which began Monday, and needed to close a $172 million shortfall, he called for new cameras that would help raise more than $30 million in new revenue.

But mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said the most recent fiscal year's outcome was evidence Gray wasn't pinning the city's fiscal future on cameras.

"We don't balance our budget on speed cameras, and this just proves that point. It's part of a surplus. We didn't anticipate it," Ribeiro said. "What it shows us is that there are a lot of people breaking the law."

Camera proponents have also pointed to studies that show the threat of tickets has enhanced safety. A 2011 report found that fatal crashes linked to red-light running were 24 percent less likely to occur in cities with cameras.

Gray has already said he envisions adding enough cameras to span the city, a push that has encountered resistance.

But Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh said she's more concerned about the size of the fines, which start at $75, not a proliferation of cameras.

"I'd like to see a red light camera at every intersection," said Cheh, who is co-chairman of a task force that is reviewing fines. "There are some areas where the speed limit may be too low, and there be some areas where the speed camera is placed to be like a speed trap."

ablinder@washingtonexaminer.com

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Alan Blinder

Staff Reporter, D.C. City Hall
The Washington Examiner