Cities threaten to kill red-light cameras if I-985 passes
Steve Maynard; [replacer_a]
Published: October 29th, 2008 10:29 PM | Updated: October 29th, 2008 10:50 PM
The cameras nab red light runners and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for city budgets. But if Initiative 985 passes, several South Sound cities say they will shut down red light cameras.Leaders in Tacoma, Lakewood, Fife, Puyallup and Auburn say they won’t have money to pay for their programs. That’s because I-985 requires all revenue from the cameras to go to a new state fund for reducing traffic congestion.
The debate over I-985 and its effect on red light cameras is escalating as Tuesday’s election nears. Supporters have raised $642,957; opponents have raised $202,685, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
The Fife City Council voted this week to oppose I-985. Tacoma police also reported this week that traffic accidents dropped nearly 14 percent citywide in the first year using the cameras.
Initiative sponsor Tim Eyman said cities would have to choose whether red light cameras are worth paying for out of their own budgets if I-985 passes.
“It removes the profit motive for putting up these cameras,” Eyman said. “They will have to make the judgment whether these cameras are worth putting up.”
Eyman said cities that are threatening to pull their red light cameras are revealing their true motive.
“I have a problem with them saying it has to do with safety when in fact they’re doing it for the money,” Eyman said. “Our initiative makes safety the sole motivation.”
Eyman said his initiative will use red light camera revenues for what people want most: reducing traffic congestion. I-985 would create the Reduce Traffic Congestion Account to open car-pool lanes during nonpeak hours, synchronize traffic lights on busy arterials and streets, and provide more money for emergency roadside assistance.
The state estimates that red light camera revenues would provide only 6 percent of the money I-985 would tap to reduce traffic congestion. More than 90 percent of the money would come from a portion of the state vehicle sales tax.
The City of Tacoma is using proceeds from its nine red light cameras to help pay for three police officer and 12 firefighter positions for providing service in the Tacoma Tideflats, said city spokesman Rob McNair-Huff.
The cameras are tools for making roads safer, said Fife City Manager Steve Worthington. That’s one reason his City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to oppose I-985.
“We can’t continue to have cameras if we can’t cover the cost of its operation,” Worthington said.
Declining tax revenues already are forcing Fife to consider cutting $1.3 million out of its $15 million budget for 2009. The proposed cut includes four police officer positions – two that will be vacant and two due to retirement, Worthington said.
“If it comes down to paying for a red light photo enforcement program or keeping an officer on the street, we’re going to be focused on keeping the officer on the street,” he said.
Fife put in two cameras at the intersection of Pacific Highway East and Alexander Avenue in April. Since then, the typical number of accidents at that intersection each month has dropped from four to two, Worthington said.
In six months, Fife has generated more than $138,000 from red light cameras at two intersections to add bicycle lanes, sidewalks, street lighting and other traffic safety improvements.
The Auburn City Council and directors for the Suburban Cities Association – which includes Auburn and Federal Way – also have voted to oppose I-985.
Federal Way, which started fining violators $124 last month when caught by cameras at two intersections, hasn’t decided whether it will continue with the cameras if the measure passes, said assistant city manager Bryant Enge.
Eyman said revenue from red light cameras should decline over time because the fines should reduce the number of red light runners.
Because Tacoma City Manager Eric Anderson is relying on the cameras to pay for some police and firefighters, Eyman said, “He’s built a castle on quicksand.”
Anderson couldn’t be reached for comment. But city spokesman McNair-Huff said the police and fire positions are a short-term measure to cover increased emergency response times caused by the closure of the Murray Morgan Bridge, which the city wants repaired.
However, if red light cameras go away, so does the current funding for those positions, McNair-Huff said.
Eyman said studies report red light cameras reduce accidents in some cases and don’t in others. “It’s a mixed bag,” he said.
After one year of operating red light cameras, Tacoma police report a 13.7 percent reduction in traffic accidents citywide.
The department logged 8,480 accident calls between Oct. 1, 2006, and Sept. 30, 2007. The call number dropped to 7,315 for the following 12 months with red light cameras.
Also, the number of violations has dropped at most of seven intersections since cameras started recording red light runners in Tacoma.
Fewer tickets means fewer people are running red lights, said Lt. Pete Cribbin.
“That’s a significant thing,” he said.
Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647