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D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray plans to ‘cover the entire city’ with traffic cameras

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Mayor Vincent C. Gray said Tuesday that he plans to “cover the entire city” with speed and other traffic cameras to make the District safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, a proposal that could further strain the city’s already tenuous relationship with the car.

Testifying before the D.C. Council on his proposed fiscal 2013 budget, Gray (D) denied that the city is using traffic cameras to raise revenue or to force some motorists to give up their vehicles for mass transit. Instead, he said, his plan to expand traffic enforcement will encourage motorists to drive more slowly — and patiently.

“We are encouraging people to do more bicycling, do more walking and use green space,” Gray said. “I think we need to do everything we can to protect people in the District from the negligent and irresponsible actions of others.”

When council members asked how many cameras the District would like to install, Gray said, “Eventually, we would like to be able to cover the entire city.”

Gray went before the council to defend his $9.4 billion spending plan, which includes $35 million in cuts to human services programs, a $23 million reduction in emergency room coverage for low-income residents, and a proposal to allow bars and nightclubs to serve alcohol until 3 a.m. on weekdays and 4 a.m. on weekends.

Although council members were supportive of Gray’s effort to close an estimated $172 million budget shortfall, the proposed cuts to human services have sparked a rift between the mayor and some of his political allies, including council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).

Barry lashed out at Gray for budgeting only $11 million for the city’s annual jobs program for youths and for agreeing to move ahead with plans to remove several thousand long-term welfare recipients from the rolls.

“Mayor Gray, with me and a lot of people, our expectations were higher,” said Barry, who has been one of the mayor’s chief supporters. “When expectations are higher, disappointments are greater.”

But Gray said he set out to create a budget based on the principle of “seizing the future” for a growing and rapidly diversifying city. “The District is at a crossroads,” he said. “Will we sit back and let change happen . . . or will we harness the change?”

With the city’s population nudging above 600,000 residents last year, the District invested in more effective ways to move people around, including the 2010 launch of the city’s popular Capital Bikeshare program. From 2010 to 2011, bike trips through 20 city intersections surged nearly 21 percent, according to District Department of Transportation data.

Gray said the influx of bicyclists is driving his push for more traffic enforcement cameras.

In addition to the city’s 70 fixed and mobile red light cameras and more than two dozen speed cameras, Gray is proposing new automated “traffic calming initiatives” that would generate $30.6 million in revenue. Fines for red light or speed camera violations are $125.

The new measures could include the deployment of “speed-on-green” cameras that could detect drivers zooming though intersections and new laser-equipped cameras that could operate in tunnels. Gray is also proposing pilot enforcement programs that target pedestrians and drivers who “block the box” as well as explore new technology that could photograph and ticket drivers who do not yield to pedestrians at crosswalks.

Some advocates for drivers are skeptical of Gray’s motives.

Last year, the District collected a record $92.6 million in parking fines and an additional $40 million from parking meters. Using information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Mahlon G. “Lon” Anderson said the District also collected $63 million from red light and speed cameras.

“The fact is D.C. found a new ATM machine, and it’s motorists,” Anderson said.

Several council members also voiced concerns that the city was becoming too aggressive in its use of traffic cameras.

“I do think we are reaching a point where people have had enough of tickets,” said council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4). “We have gone overboard with this.”

But D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said in an interview that the city’s aggressive traffic enforcement policies were responsible for a 54 percent reduction in traffic fatalities from 1997 to 2010.

“The law is the law,” said Lanier, adding that studies show as much as an 80 percent reduction in speeding in areas where traffic cameras are used.

Lanier also threw her support behind Gray’s proposal to extend alcohol sales at bars and nightclubs by one hour to raise an extra $5 million from alcohol taxes. Gray said the change is needed to keep “the city open . . . and downtown active.”

Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), whose committee has oversight over alcohol issues, said Tuesday that he may derail the proposal because he fears it would be a detriment to neighborhoods.

But Lanier said police are well-equipped to deal with extended alcohol sales.

“We’ll be fine,” she said.

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