Driver questions D.C. speed camera setup

Robert Thomson
Columnist March 14, 2012

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I like speed cameras. Seriously. They’ve slowed down traffic on East-West Highway in Bethesda and on Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase. But I was just a little outraged when I got a ticket for going 36 in a 25 on Independence Avenue SE next to RFK Stadium.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

A 25 mph speed limit? The picture shows my car on a three-lane, one-way road and no traffic anywhere near me. Can’t we expect the authorities to set reasonable speed limits? By the way, the ticket was for $125. I know that the District is short of funds, but this is way out of line.

Bob Bergman, Chevy Chase

DG: Although I support the speed camera programs, I hate hearing that one of my readers got a camera ticket.

You’re driving along. There’s a flash. Was it lightning? There’s no thunder. Did I miss a red light? Was I speeding? The only way to find out is to check the mail for a couple of weeks and see whether a citation arrives.

The D.C. police department has a mobile camera location in the 1900 block of Independence Avenue SE. It’s one of several sites for cameras in the neighborhood.

Drivers might not be in a position to assess what’s nearby. What they know is that they’re on a pretty wide road going one way. That road design tends to spur drivers on and make them less aware of their speed.

The neighbors tend to be fine with the cameras and the speed limits (25 mph is standard for D.C. neighborhoods). To the neighbors, a three-lane road is a danger to pedestrians, who, in this area, might be going to or from the Stadium-Armory Metro stop, Eastern High School or the St. Coletta school for people with cognitive disabilities, among other public places.

Sometimes, the solution for bringing down speeds involves redesigning the road. In fact, the District Department of Transportation did some redesigning in nearby Capitol Hill. Constitution Avenue NE between Third and 14th streets used to be one-way at rush hours. In 2007, DDOT converted it to two-way traffic all the time, which tends to get drivers to slow down.

That pleased the neighborhood but left commuters thinking the District had declared war on them.

Taking on tolls

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I read your Jan. 15 column on toll roads with great interest and believe the letter writer is quite correct.

Most people already cannot afford these expensive toll facilities. I stopped using the tunnels in Baltimore shortly after the Maryland Transportation Authority’s draconian toll increases were proposed. This costs me less than 10 minutes of time, and I get to keep the equivalent of a gallon of gas each way now. Further, I’ve found some restaurants and stores that are worth visiting — better for me and better for Baltimore.

Christopher Shuman, Greenbelt

DG: My letter writer was considering the burden of higher tolls vs. higher gasoline taxes and wondering why people would squawk about gas taxes although they seem to have little problem with tolls.

Drivers who write to me don’t like either option. They certainly complained when the tolls on the Baltimore tunnels went from $2 to $3 last fall.

But given the reluctance to raise gas taxes, tolls are the way of the future. They will be used to build new capacity and to maintain what we have. That’s what Maryland said it was doing when it raised prices.

Tolls also have a couple of purposes that make their mission less clear-cut. They’re used to moderate congestion, the technique we’ll see applied on the 495 Express Lanes, the high-occupancy toll lanes on the Capital Beltway in Virginia. And they’re used to raise money for transit projects, as we’re seeing with the Dulles Toll Road.

Although transportation officials can make a good case that drivers ultimately will share the benefits of this revenue, they risk pushing drivers too far when they muddle the mission of tolling.

No free rides

Here’s an example of the way drivers feel.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I believe high-occupancy toll lanes are just part of the scam of turning what should be public functions into private profits for, yes, the 1 percent. But more to the point locally, I believe even more strongly that, once completed, these lanes should run without toll for exactly as long as it took to build them, in recompense for the years of lane closures, confusion, extra congestion and lost time and money that Washington area drivers have had to endure. Now that would be fair.

Warren Emerson, Arlington

DG: Actually, that might be fair, because drivers have put up with a lot. But we’re beyond the point, financially and legally, where a few years of free riding is possible. The commonwealth would have to break its word with its private partners on the project, who signed a deal with Virginia to build and operate the Express Lanes.

There won’t even be the couple of weeks of free riding that drivers got when Maryland opened the Intercounty Connector. Officials with Transurban, the company that will operate the 495 Express Lanes, tell me they’re working with a different concept.

Maryland’s road was brand new, and the Maryland Transportation Authority wanted to introduce drivers to the route while it was fine-tuning its tolling equipment. So the free-ride period made sense.

Virginia is introducing new lanes on an old road. The marketing concept — the thing some drivers might be willing to pay for — isn’t fresh pavement going to the same places. It’s the idea that you can be reasonably sure when you’re going to arrive, thanks to the variable tolling that rises to discourage congestion.

If the operators let everyone pile in for a free ride at the start and the lanes appear congested, many drivers would come away sure that the project wasn’t worth the trouble.

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