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Sausage machine generates great contractor parking bill, enfeebles speed camera bill

Today, Mary Cheh's DC Council committee, which oversees transportation, is marking up 13 bills on topics from Bloomingdale flooding (affected homeowners can get money) to recycling demolished building materials (contractors have to do it). 2 we've been closely following have changed significantly in this round: one to let contractors park on residential streets, and the much-ballyhooed bill to lower speed camera fines.


Photo by Cowgirl Jules on Flickr.

On contractor parking, Cheh proposes a system of passes which licensed contractors can buy to park, for one day per pass, on residential streets. This is a great approach that points the way to a better solution for guest passes and much more.

The speed camera bill, meanwhile, lost some important provisions, like the fund dedicating some revenue to better streets and more safety programs. However, it gained a sunset provision which lets us see whether, as proponents hope, lowering fines would end the outcry against cameras or just give something away for little gain.

Contractor parking bill takes the right approach

The contractor parking bill (committee report) will let licensed contractors get day passes to park on residential streets where they have jobs. Each pass will let them park for one day, until 5 pm. DDOT will set up a system for them to buy these passes, at a cost of $10 per day, and can adjust the rates in the future with a rulemaking.

This is a terrific solution to an important problem. (Full disclosure: I talked with Cheh's staff about this approach.) Our streets are reserved for residents, but residents often have contractors working at their houses. Contractors currently get in the habit of just parking illegally and absorbing some number of tickets as the cost of business, a cost they broadly pass on to homeowners.

Instead of making a contractor play a "reverse lottery" that they might get a big ticket, it makes far more sense to simply charge a reasonable fee. Over time, it would make sense for DDOT to customize the fee to different areas. In neighborhoods with plentiful daytime parking, the fee could be lower, and maybe in the neighborhoods with greatest demand it should be higher.

You might ask, should this just apply to contractors? Some people have housecleaners, or nannies, or elder caregivers come to the house. What about them? The answer is simple: a day pass program can work for them too. Maybe the rates would be lower, but this is generally a good solution to the weaknesses of the residential permit parking (RPP) program, and a better approach than annual placards that are too easily abused for areas with high parking demand.

Will the speed camera bill bring peace?

Meanwhile, a committee print of Tommy Wells' and Mary Cheh's bill on lowering speed camera fines (committee report) has many changes, which Council sources say mostly came from Chairman Phil Mendelson. Mendelson is still chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, and he referred the bill sequentially to both committees. Therefore, he has the opportunity to make changes.

One significant change is that the bill no longer dedicates any revenue from cameras to more cameras, safety education, traffic officers, or redesigning roads for lower "design speeds," as the original bill did.

As I've written many times, from an abstract policy point of view, lower fines make sense, as the level of fine doesn't appear to correlate with driver behavior. However, also from an abstract policy point of view, politicians shouldn't base their decisions on who shouts loudest, yet we know they do.

As Cheh noted in her opening statement at the hearing on the bill, the biggest motivation behind the bill is to remove public opposition that could stand in the way of more widespread safety-based enforcement. The question is, will this bill do that?

It could be that lowering fines suddenly creates a peace in the District where drivers and driver organizations generally accept cameras. Or, it might be that people who get tickets will scream about it just the same. While the purpose of the cameras shouldn't be and shouldn't have been revenue, now that they're here, there are other things one could spend money on besides buying down fines. Is it worth it?

We can't really know. The rationale for creating a special fund to help with future camera purchases was that it would make it easier for MPD to get new cameras without such a long and tortured process as it had for this last round. On the other hand, DC budget director Eric Goulet argued in his testimony that the fund wouldn't really end the need for the council to specifically approve new camera spending and contracts anyway, so it doesn't matter.

Another way to deal with this uncertainty would be to make the new fines temporary. Let's see how things work out for a year or so. If there's peace in camera land, then it was the right move and should be permanent. If we're still having the same arguments, then DC might as well take the revenue for all the headaches.

Fortunately, the new committee print does just that. It includes a sunset provision that it will expire at the end of the 2013 fiscal year (in September 2013). This also means that this bill wouldn't affect the FY2014 budget, which the Council will debate this spring.

It still does mean the bill would use up some of the "unanticipated revenue" that is coming in this year, instead of it going to another program such as the Housing Production Trust Fund.

On the other hand, the fines now aren't going down as much. The original bill set fines at $50 for speeding up to 20 mph over the limit, but now proposes levels of $50 for up to 10 mph over (which MPD doesn't usually ticket for) and $75 for 11-20 over. That probably means it will cost less, though it also means it might be less likely to assuage angry drivers who got a lot of tickets.

Another change, and not a great one, is that the bill now does not distinguish between fines for automated enforcement and fines from a police officer. This is simpler, but wrong. The idea behind lower automated fines is that there should be an inverse relationship between severity and certainty: if the chance of getting caught is higher, the punishment needn't be so high. With a camera, that's the case.

But if there's an area without cameras, but officers are doing some in-person ticket writing, the certainty is low again, so the fine needs to stay higher. Besides, low fines could make it harder for MPD to assign officers to writing tickets in safety trouble spots, since the tickets might not pay for the officer's time any more.

Cheh's committee is marking up the bill today, and then Mendelson's will mark it up tomorrow. He could push for changes, for better or worse, at that point. Then it will go before the Council, where members could try to amend it to further change provisions or restore some from the original bill.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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very minor point, in the lede, change "2" to "Two."

That being said, the speeding bill looks good. Removing the dedicated revenue sounds good. I'm move to to the proposed lower limit. Equalizing the camera/live officer delta is also positive.

Great work by Phil.

by charlie on Nov 28, 2012 12:35 pm • linkreport

Unfortunately none of the work on the speeding camera program addresses the real issue: do they help safety?

We can argue about how much the fines are and where the money goes until we're blue in the face but until someone actually demonstrates that there's a relationship between the speeding cameras and safety, it's all bluster.

Statistics on auto passenger and pedestrian fatalities that number in the single and small double digits are *irrelevant*. They are not statistically significant, and there are many outside factors (such as dramatic improvement in car safety design) that overwhelm them. NHTSA data is irrelevant - most auto accident deaths, nationally, are on highways. We don't really have any.

There is a very simple, foolproof way to find out what effect the cameras have. Tell me the number and type of accidents at a particular intersection before and after the camera was installed.

Why resist releasing this data? Why have a program that involves hundreds of millions of dollars, all in the name of safety, and not conduct such an obvious, basic analysis?

I can't think of any reasonable explanation, so I must assume that the answer is that the data does not show a positive correlation.

But regardless, there is simply NO EXCUSE for not providing a transparent analysis using easily available data.

I want things that make the city safer. If the cameras do, it's very easy to prove it. If they don't, then I want to know why we aren't investing resources in fixing problems with bad intersctions or roadways, and instead just making money off them, while lives continue to be lost.

by Jamie on Nov 28, 2012 12:53 pm • linkreport

Our streets are reserved for residents

Ah, there is that old hatred for outsiders again. While it seems sensible to allow day passes, it is ludicrous to claim that streets are reserved for residents. Streets are to move through. Parking spots are for stopping.

Considering the debates we've had here about letting the market set parking prices, it makes no sense to exclude certain groups from that market mechanism.

by Jasper on Nov 28, 2012 1:18 pm • linkreport

David A., as always on the side of common sense, here displayed on the camera bill.

by Crickey7 on Nov 28, 2012 1:23 pm • linkreport

"Our streets are reserved for residents"

I don't like the sound of that either. Sounds elitist.

by tagliabue on Nov 28, 2012 3:57 pm • linkreport

I understand why it sounds bad to say "Our streets are reserved for residents". There are cases where non-residents parking on the street is a real, chronic problem, but this bill doesn't address it.

In Woodley Park and south Cleveland Park near the zoo its a huge problem. its not just that thousands of people queue up, idle, clogg tiny streets every weekend morning from June to Oct to look for free street parking and stay all day instead of parking at the zoo and paying a fee, (or taking the metro); They also litter (a lot!) and park illegally w/o penalty b/c parking enforcement doesn't work on weekends. Illegal means blocking fire hydrants and access to buildings by first responders, if needed. Its a safety hazard.

This is an ongoing problem and the complaint is not directed at visitors or hired help to people who live in the neighborhood or to patrons of the businesses-they don't arrive at 9am and stay till 5pm; or if they do, they do not do so by the thousands at the same time on the same day for months at a time.

by Tina on Nov 28, 2012 5:41 pm • linkreport

I read "Our streets are reserved for residents" simply as a statement of fact: on streets that are zoned for resident parking only, the parking spots are reserved for the use of those with resident parking permits: residents.

by contrarian on Nov 28, 2012 5:53 pm • linkreport

Contractor parking could be a major problem if limits aren't in place. As buildings are going up subcontractors and employees could take up hundreds of spaces.

In my block we had to get expanded RPP because the construction workers on nearby new buildings were taking every spot for blocks around during the daytime.

by Tom Coumaris on Nov 28, 2012 7:01 pm • linkreport

@ Tina:In Woodley Park and south Cleveland Park near the zoo its a huge problem. its not just that thousands of people queue up, idle, clogg tiny streets every weekend morning from June to Oct to look for free street parking and stay all day instead of parking at the zoo and paying a fee, (or taking the metro);

If they purchase anything, they're paying plenty of DC taxes. Lowering the coffers of your city.

They also litter (a lot!) and park illegally w/o penalty b/c parking enforcement doesn't work on weekends.

Ok. Get some trash bins out and some cops to write some tickets. That generates income for the city, instead of scaring tourists away.

by Jasper on Nov 28, 2012 9:04 pm • linkreport

"Unfortunately none of the work on the speeding camera program addresses the real issue: do they help safety? We can argue about how much the fines are and where the money goes until we're blue in the face but until someone actually demonstrates that there's a relationship between the speeding cameras and safety, it's all bluster."

@Jamie - Safety is certainly an important issue, and there's plenty of data available on speeding-related injuries and fatalities, and if - as you claim - statistics based on a relatively small sample of incidents are "irrelevant," then it's hard to see how the data you demand - # of accidents before installation of cameras vs. # after - would be any more relevant or useful in aessing the effect of cameras on safety. If injuries go from 6 to 5 on a given stretch of road, will you deem that evidence conclusive? I didn't think so.

Camera-based enforcement isn't solely about safety, and I wish advocates would stop caving into those critics who claim it's "really just about revenue." That doens't happen to be true, but if it were, so what? If we have to raise revenue, what's wrong with having people who break the law pay a fine - call it a fee or tax if you prefer. We wouldn't want DC to become hooked on that funding source the way some small speed-trap towns do, but we're nowhere near that point now, and likely won't be ever.

But safety is th eonly issues you're concerned about, consider the other aspect of public safety that the data you demand wouldn't explain: police who freed from ticket-writing duties can focus on other public safety tasks that can't be done by machine. Sure, that's not a guarnatee that they'll do so, but hopefully they will.

by Paula Product on Nov 29, 2012 11:06 am • linkreport

Lowering the fines for both speed-camera tickets and officer-written tickets strongly suggests that someone in the Council needs a concise briefing on the basic theory of deterrence. But using this as a baseline revenue, the next step should be to increase the fines back for officer-generated tickets and reduce the fines to $50 for 10-15 mph over the limit from speed cameras.

It is absurd for 19mph over the limit to result in the same fine as 11 to 12 mph over the limit.

by JimT on Nov 29, 2012 11:33 am • linkreport

@Jasper-Ha! "get cops to write tickets"! Thats really funny!

Taxes from purchases? There is no fee for zoo entry and if they park on the street there is no fee. I can make a reasonable argument that the costs of thousands of cars circling and idling and clogging up side streets and hogging parking spots all day from others who might want to patronize area businesses off-sets any tax revenue gleaned from their McDonalds purchases, the debris from which is often left curbside. There are trashcans on the streets already. One must make an effort to use them.

by Tina on Nov 29, 2012 12:03 pm • linkreport

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