Politics & Government

Traffic cameras questioned

Two South Sound legislators say Washington cities are misusing automated traffic cameras to boost revenue and that they should lower the cost of their tickets.

Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, and Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, say state lawmakers never intended automated red light cameras to slap drivers with fines of $100 or more, which is what they cost in most South Sound cities. Regional cities that have red light cameras include Lacey, Tacoma, Lakewood, Puyallup, Federal Way, Auburn and Fife

Hurst believes cities are installing more and more traffic cameras not to increase public safety but to make money. He’s concerned they might even try to shorten the length of yellow lights to catch more red light runners and increase profits.

“It’s like crack cocaine for cities,” Hurst said. “They get this revenue, and all of a sudden it’s ‘How can we get more?’”

Local cities that use camera enforcement disagree. Some say lowering fines wouldn’t deter reckless driving. Others contend they wouldn’t be able to cover the cost of maintaining a photo enforcement program.

“It’s really not a cash cow,” said David Brewster, spokesman for the City of Lakewood, which started its camera program in 2001, the first Washington city to do so.

“Off the top, we’ve got to pay money for sustaining the system and processing citations through the court,” Brewster said. “Whatever is left over from that is diverted directly back to public safety.”

A bill by Hurst would reduce the maximum fine associated with photo violations to $25, while Kastama’s bill would make the fines equal to the cost of an average parking ticket.

Hurst’s bill would also require all photo-enforced intersections to have yellow lights that last four seconds.

The bills come as local jurisdictions are expanding their photo enforcement programs.

The Lacey City Council voted in August to extend its contract for red light cameras for three years, saying data showed the cameras reduced collisions and red light violations.

Tacoma added two cameras to catch speeders in November, while Federal Way installed two speed cameras and three red light cameras last month.

Kastama noted that state lawmakers said from the beginning that red light tickets shouldn’t exceed parking fines.

But cities took that to mean they could hit drivers with the highest parking fine available, such as the fee for parking in an alley or handicapped zone.

Legislators intended the traffic camera fines to be closer to $40 or so, he said.

“That’s enough of a deterrent without being onerous financially,” Kastama said.

But city officials say the behavior caught by cameras is more serious than a parking violation.

“I don’t know that anyone would equate running a red light and putting someone at risk of an accident with being five minutes over in a parking space,” city of Tacoma spokesman Rob McNair-Huff said.

Tacoma’s tickets for photo-enforced red light and speeding violations cost $101 each. Tacoma’s cameras brought in $1.2 million in 2009; the city kept $515,240 after expenses, according to municipal court data.

Lacey’s cameras brought the city a net revenue of $189,000 between May 2008 and May 2009.

In Puyallup, the city’s eight cameras brought in $1.1 million between July and December 2009. The city had to pay $340,000 during that time to its camera operator, American Traffic Solutions of Arizona, according to Police Chief Jim Collyer. The city spent an additional $105,000 of Police Department resources administering the program and an undetermined amount of additional money processing tickets through its municipal court, according to Collyer.

A memo from the police chief Thursday said that if Puyallup’s photo enforcement fines dropped from $124 to $48 each, the city wouldn’t be able to maintain its camera program.

In Lakewood, Brewster said Lakewood’s cameras brought in nearly $1.3 million in 2009, about $456,000 of which went to Redflex, the company that runs the cameras. The city maintains cameras at three intersections and in two school zones to increase traffic safety, not to make a profit, he said.

As a measure of effectiveness, Puyallup City Manager Gary McLean said the cameras in his city are catching far fewer red light runners now than when they were turned on in May 2008.

Between May and December 2009, violations decreased by 52 percent over the same period in 2008, according to police data.

“We saw a tremendous increase in compliance with the law, and that improves safety throughout the city for all drivers,” McLean said.

But Hurst questioned whether the cameras actually decrease the frequency and severity of accidents. He cited a seven-year study of photo-enforced intersections in Virginia that found red light cameras increased rear-end collisions.

Knowing that risk, he said he wants to make sure cities don’t make the problem worse by shortening the length of yellow lights. Some cities operating red light cameras in other states have cut yellow light times to try to ticket more people for running reds, he said.

Georgia’s state Legislature responded to that problem last year by increasing the required length of yellow lights at photo intersections by one second.

Hurst’s bill would require all photo-enforced intersections in Washington to sustain their yellow lights for four seconds.

He said he wants to address the issue in Washington before it becomes a problem.

“I don’t want to be implementing a four-second rule three or four years from now after hundreds of Washington citizens have been killed,” Hurst said.

Melissa Santos: 253-552-7058