Traffic camera battle heats up

MUKILTEO — This picturesque waterfront community seems an unlikely location for a revolt, but make no mistake, Tim Eyman says, one has started here.

The target: traffic-enforcement cameras in Washington.

One way or another, voters around the state soon will get the opportunity to decide whether the cameras will be allowed in their communities, the initiative activist from Mukilteo said.

Eyman doesn’t buy the argument from enforcement-camera supporters that the devices provide a tight focus

on enhancing traffic safety.

“It is taxation through citation,” he said. “It is just another way to pick the public’s pockets.”

Mukilteo voters in 2010 lined up 71 percent behind an Eyman-inspired measure that ultimately deep-sixed plans for using enforcement cameras in his town. In the months since, he’s been helping others try to get similar measures in front of voters in Wenatchee, Bellingham, Longview, Redmond and Monroe.

Attorneys for enforcement-camera companies and local governments, meanwhile, have gone to court on both sides of the state to argue that votes like the one in Mukilteo ought to be prohibited.

Arguments on the cases are scheduled Friday in Chelan County and May 24 in the state Supreme Court.

Those opposed to the ballot measures contend they give local voters improper control over how state law will be implemented. Among the legal precedents they cite is a controversial case from Snohomish County in the early 1990s that barred a local referendum property-rights advocates had pressed in an attempt to derail the state’s Growth Management Act at the local level.

The Supreme Court case to be heard later this month focuses on the Mukilteo ballot measure. The city of Seattle, which uses traffic-enforcement cameras, is not a party in the case, but it weighed in anyway, urging the court to prohibit similar votes.

There is a fix if the courts rule against individual communities voting on how enforcement cameras will be used, Eyman said. If that happens, he’ll press for a statewide initiative to ax the 2005 law that Washington legislators put on the books authorizing their use.

Traffic camera supporters say the devices improve safety by using the threat of tickets to convince people not to roll through red lights or speed in school zones. They point to a handful of national studies, including one done by an insurance industry research group, that say the cameras can save lives. But the safety claims ignore the economics of the way camera systems are used, and have created “a public policy based on a complete lie,” Eyman said.

“The more people violating the law, the more the cities make, which creates a perverse incentive to maximize the number of lawbreakers there are,” he said.

People around the state are looking closely at how the city of Lynnwood has been using revenue from traffic camera tickets, he said.

Lynnwood officials insist traffic safety is the primary reason they started using the cameras in 2006. When the revenues started rolling in above expectations in 2007, documents show city officials opted to hire three police officers — union jobs paid for with traffic camera revenue. Traffic camera revenue climbed to more than $4 million in 2010 even as the city’s spending habits and declining tax revenue opened a $22 million gap in its biennial budget. To fix the mess, the city laid off 30 employees across all departments and approved new tax increases.

Last year, more than 75 percent of Lynnwood’s traffic tickets were issued using enforcement cameras. Combined with the fines from tickets written by traffic beat cops, Lynnwood brought in enough infraction revenue to pay for more than 15 percent of the city’s general fund expenses in 2010, according to figures provided by the city.

“I’m glad they’re hiring cops. That’s what they should be doing with the money,” said state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island.

Haugen in 2005 sponsored the state law that gave cities and counties the ability to put up cameras. She has no regrets.

“It’s all about safety, as far as I’m concerned. The truth of the matter is that if you don’t run the light you don’t get a ticket,” Haugen said. “I think most people when they stop and think about it recognize you shouldn’t run a red light.”

She’s also no fan of the measure Eyman pushed in Mukilteo. It requires separate public votes before cameras can be authorized or installed.

“We have a representative form of government. We elect people to make decisions for the greater good,” Haugen said. People can vote lawmakers out of office if they disagree with the choices they make, she said.

Some state legislators wanted to crack down on the use of the cameras by cities and counties this year but failed to find enough allies. Right now there is a bill awaiting the governor’s signature which will allow cameras to be attached to the outside of public school buses. The purpose is to snap pictures of cars illegally passing a bus when it is stopped for students to get on and off.

There was no organized opposition to the bill. Eyman said that’s because it arrived with little fanfare.

Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, whose district includes Lynnwood, wants tougher rules on cameras and the revenue they generate. He signed on to a bill this year that would have repealed the authority cities have to install them.

“The state does need to do something to reform the way these cameras are being used. I wish we would have taken action this year,” said Liias, who is vice chairman of the House Transportation Committee. “I understand cities desperately want to keep cameras in these tough times. Opponents want to get rid of them. There’s not a lot of middle ground.”

Liias didn’t criticize Lynnwood. But he stressed that if the purpose of the cameras is to improve safety, revenues should be spent on specific improvements “so they don’t become a revenue source for cities to depend on.”

Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Anacortes, authored one of the bills to crack down on cameras. There is a perception that local governments have gone beyond what the Legislature originally authorized, he said.

To those who argue the cameras enhance public safety, Morris responds: “If it is about reducing accidents and improving intersections, I say put a roundabout in.”

He thinks camera revenues need to be linked to spending on safety improvements, law enforcement and the court system.

Morris understands cities are struggling to pay their bills and the lure of cameras. “Whether it is 1 percent or 16 percent, it is more revenue than they have now. I think a lot are thinking about taking the opportunity these present.”

Some of his constituents have told him they aren’t going to the Alderwood mall as much as in the past — and not because of the slow economy.

“I have people say they don’t stop in Lynnwood any longer because of the cameras,” he said.

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