City's take skyrockets at start of 2013 fiscal year

Traffic camera fines are poised to dip in the District, but one aspect of the controversial program is set to surge in 2013: the number of the devices that generate tickets for common traffic offenses like speeding and running stoplights.

Over the course of 2013, the District government will add 134 traffic cameras to its network, more than doubling the size of a system that generated $85 million in revenues for the city in its last fiscal year.

Police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump told The Washington Examiner that the city will intensify its camera-based efforts to cite motorists for speeding and stoplight violations while also adding cameras to detect other moving violations.

Cameras add heft to Maryland budgets
Although the District has the region's most profitable -- and frequently vilified -- traffic camera program, Maryland counties have also found the cameras to be lucrative traffic safety tools.

Authorities in Prince George's County forecasted a surge in revenue in its 2013 fiscal year, which began July 1 and will conclude next June.
The county budgeted for $4.3 million in ticket revenue in 2012, but that figure climbed nearly fourfold to $16.8 million in 2013.
And statistics from Montgomery County show the county took in $15.8 million in its 2012 fiscal year from speed and stoplight cameras. Most of the money -- $13.9 million -- came from nearly 331,000 speeding tickets.
The county's 2012 take was far from a record, though: In the 2009 fiscal year, the county collected $20.7 million from camera-snagged speeders.
Virginia has a far more limited automated enforcement program and only allows stoplight cameras - Alan Blinder and Kate Jacobson

The District's plans for the new devices, Crump said,

include 32 cameras that will produce tickets for drivers who blow through stop signs and 16 to monitor crosswalks.

Supporters of the cameras -- like Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul Quander -- say they are vital to protecting lives on the roadways.

"They save lives because people slow down, and the reason people slow down is they don't want to pay a penalty," Quander told The Examiner. "If ever there was a model for a public policy event that has changed behavior for the betterment of overall society, this is it."

And District officials say raw numbers back up their assertion that the program has been successful: Although the city recorded 72 traffic fatalities in 2001, that number fell to 32 in 2011.

But the cameras have vocal detractors, many of whom point to the revenues they've brought into the District's coffers.

In the 2012 fiscal year, which ended in September, the city collected more than $85 million from its cameras. That haul easily topped the record set in 2011: $55 million.

And the new budget cycle is already proving lucrative for the city. Recent figures show D.C. collected about 2,000 percent more in camera revenue in the first two months of the 2013 fiscal year than it did in the same stretch in the 2012 budget year.

"It should be about traffic safety, but at what cost?" asked John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "Our concern is the city will get a reputation as being more interested in generating revenue than in traffic safety, despite whatever they say."

Quander dismissed such criticisms.

"People get fixated that it's about the money," he said. "Money is generated, but if people would slow down, then it wouldn't be generating as much money."

Although the District has operated ticket-giving cameras since the late 1990s, the surge in revenues suddenly made the system a political football this year. The ensuing battle pitted Mayor Vincent Gray, who portrayed himself as a champion of public safety, against lawmakers, who said the city appeared hungry for cash.

By the time the gavel dropped during the final D.C. Council session of the year, lawmakers had made a point of taking a vote to thwart Gray's proposal to stem public outcry and voting again to enact their own strategy.

Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells said the size of the program's impending expansion showed why the legislation was critical to residents.

"It underscores the importance of getting the fine amount correct, or people are going to be owing so much money," Wells said.