D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, a likely candidate for mayor, has formed a task force to explore whether fines issued by automated traffic cameras are taking too much from motorists’ wallets.
As both Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) have expanded traffic cameras in the District, the revenue they generate for the city has soared. According to AAA Mid-Atlantic, the cameras brought in a record $55 million in fiscal 2011 and are expected to far exceed that figure this year.
Wells (D-Ward 6) said some fines have risen by as much as 500 percent over the past five years. Worried that the city now views the cameras as a tax instead of a safety device, Wells said the task force will work this summer to find the appropriate balance between safety and revenue.
“The goal of assuring safety has been eclipsed by the government’s dependence upon the revenue generated by high fines,” Wells said. “With the use of cameras assuring stricter enforcement of our traffic laws, the need for high fines should be revisited.”
Wells plans to use the task force recommendations to revisit the fine issue this fall when the council returns from summer recess. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chairwoman of the transportation committee, and council Chairman Phil Mendelson (I-At Large) would probably have to align with Wells on the issue before it received serious consideration.
A chief concern could be whether the city can afford to decrease fines. Though city finances are stable, recent budget debates have shown that the council can get bogged down for days over how to find a few million dollars in a $9.4 billion budget.
Some pedestrian and bicycling activists could also question a lowering of fines, arguing that they serve as a deterrent against reckless motorists.
But Wells’s effort could help him dilute his reputation for being too anti-car.
For years, Wells boasted he didn’t own a car, instead often riding his bicycle to the John A. Wilson Building. (His wife does own a vehicle). On the council, Wells became a chief advocate for public transportation and city policies that encourage fewer cars on city streets.
While that image has helped Wells build a base of support with environmentalists and the bike-share crowd, it could undercut him in a citywide campaign in some District neighborhoods where many residents still rely on vehicles. Several community leaders east of the Anacostia, an area of the city where Wells is not well known, have spoken out in recent months against the growing use of traffic cameras.
Current fines, Wells argues, are “particularly harsh” on low-income drivers.
Wells said AAA Mid-Atlantic, the Pedestrian Advisory Council, DC Bicycle Advisory Council and Council for Court Excellence have agreed to serve on the task force.