Greater Greater Washington

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Orange jumps on anti-camera bandwagon

Freshman Congressman Kerry Bentivolio (R-MI) wants to use Congress' power over DC to ban red light and speed cameras. On Friday, at-large DC Councilmember Vincent Orange said he wants to take action, instead of Congress, to place a moratorium on cameras and other restrictions.

Photo by a simple bag on Flickr.

In his letter to Bentivolio, Orange referred to "problems" with the camera system, but didn't specify what problems. The only evident rationale is the widespread attitude among many elected officials and residents, that speeding is really not a problem and is not a law we need to enforce.

Camera opponents have repeatedly lamented the way camera revenue helps shore up DC's budget. However, Chairman Phil Mendelson actually just made a budget change to weaken the link between cameras and a balanced budget. Instead of making the objection to cameras go away, that may have given Orange an opening to block enforcement.

When cameras aren't about revenue, that's when they get cut?

In the final budget, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson rearranged the way camera revenues factor into the budget. Instead of the money going toward the general fund, Mendelson replaced it with revenue from an Internet sales tax, in the event that Congress lets DC and states tax Internet sales.

Mary Cheh and Jim Graham had hoped to use the sales tax money to fight homelessness. Mendelson used it to remove any budget dependency on cameras. The camera money would instead go into a pot for Metro long-term improvements like 8-car trains and connecting walkways.

Mendelson stated that his reason was to ensure that any changes the council might want to make to cameras has no "fiscal impact"; that it doesn't unbalance the budget. Orange's bill would cause a big budget hole, and DC can't pass bills which unbalance the budget. If the Internet sales tax comes in, however, Mendelson's maneuver would free Orange's bill of this problem.

The big loser would be that Metro money, but since that's in the future and the details are still fuzzy, the council can raid that with impunity. So while having camera revenue plug holes in the budget is not ideal, it kept members like Orange and Mendelson from putting their own lead feet over neighborhood needs. With the barrier gone, so is that obstacle to a bill like Orange's.

Scarcely was the ink dry on the budget before Orange took that next step to block any new enforcement, even where residents have been clamoring for slower speeds and less red light running in their neighborhoods.

Speeding is one of the few laws many people just don't want enforced

Orange said he was going to introduce his bill at the next legislative session, but is announcing now to try to let the council excuse speeding before Congress can. The bill would place a 2-year moratorium on any new cameras, require DC to place signs before each camera, and justify the safety basis for each location.

That last part, which just demands reports on the safety impact of each camera, isn't so terrible, but largely duplicates a budget amendment David Grosso (at-large) already added this year.

In response to the news, Benjamin Cooper tweeted, "guess someone got a ticket." Indeed, it would be fascinating to find out if Bentivolio received a ticket recently.

This is the fundamental problem facing pedestrian safety in DC neighborhoods. A lot of people don't believe speeding in residential areas, even 10 mph over the limit, is a big deal. Most of us who drive do it. But the consequences can be grave.

Lawmakers show little interest in excusing unlawful action in other realms. They don't seek to put limits on the police's ability to stop drivers and search for marijuana, guns, or stolen goods. This despite the fact that studies show black drivers are far more likely to get pulled over and searched than white ones.

Maybe that's because speeding is one crime where the lawmakers see themselves in the role of the hurried driver and far less often as the senior trying to cross a wide street on foot. All other consternation, like about the program serving as a revenue stream, rings quite hollow, especially since the amount of complaining only rose after DC lowered fines last year.

Sure, it would be nice if the counterargument that it's "just about revenue" didn't exist, but in fact, the revenue has prevented lawmakers from deleting cameras before. Ironically, the moment camera revenue and the budget get (at least provisionally) split up, alleviating arguments that DC is dependent on the revenue, that's the very time lawmakers start taking steps to block the government from curbing dangerous driving behavior.


Can DC decouple growth and "parking pressures"?

Councilmember Tommy Wells re-introduced legislation this week to let a developer of a new building promise that tenants can't get stickers to park on neighborhood streets, if they choose to offer such a guarantee to neighbors. Would this alleviate the parking angst that erupts over nearly every development project, like ongoing controversies in Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant?

Harvard Street in Columbia Heights. Photo by Kent Boese.

In Tenleytown, the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) supported a new building with no underground parking last year, on the condition that new residents not be able to get residential parking stickers. That was fine with developer Douglas Jemal, but government agencies may not enforce this provision, leaving it entirely to the private agreement between Douglas Development and the ANC.

Neighborhood opposition to growth often revolves around traffic and parking. Even if a developer wants to market a new building to car-free and car-lite new residents, people worry that residents will bring cars anyway and park them on the street.

Building underground parking isn't a solution, either, because some people will still park on the street to save the monthly garage fee, and that underground parking means a lot of cars which add to traffic.

Just look at this message on PoPville's forum, from a resident in Columbia Heights. Some people have been double parking on Harvard Street, stopping emergency vehicles from getting through. Clearly, people should not double park and ought to get tickets, but the resident then went on to use this case to argue against a parking-free condo project:

The reason I'm asking is that a developer is seeking to build an 8 unit apartment building on Harvard Street, NW and they are asking the board of zoning to waive the parking requirements to have parking for their building. We submitted over 70 signatures and 10 letters of opposition today, but apparently the planning department is planning on supporting this application.

It is my feeling that worsening the parking problem on Harvard street will effectively cut off access to local hospitals for residents in Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, and Columbia Heights, and will make it impossible for the fire trucks in Adams Morgan to help out at fires east of 16th street.

It's not possible to solve a double parking problem by ensuring that there are 8 more parking spaces off street. The only solution, as many commenters pointed out, is to ensure that we enforce the double parking rules so that parked cars don't block emergency vehicles. Still, we know that the prospect of more residents makes people worry that parking on the street will get harder.

Meridian Hill Baptist Church. Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

Not far away, Mount Pleasant ANC Commissioner China Terrell worries about a development project at the former fire-ravaged Meridian Hill Baptist Church:

[The developers] want to build 75 condos in the church (mostly 1-bedroom units), with no on-site parking. Instead, homeowners would have the option of leasing parking spaces at DC USA in Columbia Heights. When this plan was introduced at the May 21 ANC meeting, residents were not supportive for obvious reasons. Increased parking and population pressures? The residents said no, thank you.
DC USA is just about 2 blocks from the church, so actually, parking off-street in that garage is probably a shorter walk than trying to find an on-street space in the neighborhood at busy times, where you might circle for a while and end up as far away.

It's bad policy to require parking in every new building, like the Harvard Street condos and this church, but it's also understandable that residents would worry about the impacts. There's an existing shared resource that's often scarce. People are used to consuming that resource.

One solution is to ensure that new growth doesn't impact the resource. We want new residents, but don't want parking pressure. Just like it doesn't affect neighbors whether a new building has a fitness center or not, or whether there are 2 bathrooms for 2 bedrooms versus just one, Wells' bill could let parking be another issue that's up to the building and its tenants rather than a neighborhood impact.

It ought to be a basic value we all share (though not everyone does) that we want to welcome new people into our neighborhoods. New residents mean more vitality for local businesses, more tax revenue to shore up our city's budget, more people on the street to make neighborhoods safe.

Some people are nervous about treating new residents differently from existing residents. Why should one group of people get to use the public space and not others, they ask? We already give existing residents a break on property taxes, for instance. On the other hand, we shouldn't say that new residents can't use a public park, or send kids to a school, even though sometimes people oppose adding neighbors because they fear those resources will get more crowded as well.

Unlike those, however, driving is just one of several methods of getting around. In a place like Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights, there are many other alternatives, like Metro, buses, bicycling, and more. Some people still need to drive, but it's very reasonable to internalize that cost. If you want to drive, you will have to rent a place with a parking space, or rent a separate space at DC USA, or otherwise provide for this just as you pay for your bathroom space.

Wells' bill might not eliminate all opposition to growth. People will still also say they don't want to have to look at buildings, or don't want population in general. But trouble parking seems to be the biggest fear residents have from most projects. It doesn't need to be.


Will leaders stand up against the death toll?

Tragically, people are getting killed on District streets, two in one day in February. Experts acknowledge that stopping these deaths is a major challenge. In something of a reversal from decades past, as demographics and living patterns shift, it's also a serious problem in suburban areas such as Montgomery County.

Photo by Hawkins on Flickr.

What is the D.C. Council doing about it? Adding police? Investigating thoroughly? No. In fact, in the budget the council passed this month, Chairman Phil Mendelson dedicated considerable future revenue to ease punishment for those whose dangerous actions put others at risk, while simultaneously restraining the police from expanding enforcement.

I'm not talking about murder and similar violence, though violence in our city is no laughing matter. This problem strikes far closer to home for most of us: distracted driving, speeding, unsafe right turns on red or through crosswalks, red-light running and other forms of unsafe driving.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.

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