Some Maryland towns getting less revenue from once-profitable speed cameras


Speed cameras monitor traffic on the 2200 block of Wooton Parkway in front of Wooton High School in Rockville, where the speed limit is 25 mph. ( Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

In 2011, Mount Rainier collected $1.7 million in fines from its then-new speed camera program.

Three years later, the program in the Maryland city isn’t generating enough citations to even sustain itself, and the funds it accrued during its first two years are running out.

“Now that drivers know where the camera is, they slow down. Their driving habits have changed, and as a result, we do not generate too much revenue,” said city Treasurer Vijay K. Manjani.

Speed camera programs continue to gain popularity nationwide, with at least 132 communities having them, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And Maryland and the District are known as national leaders in the use of automated speed enforcement. Virginia does not allow speed cameras.

The main problem, law enforcement officials say, remains the perception that the cameras are used as revenue enhancers.

Now that the revenue from the programs in some communities is beginning to drop, government and law enforcement officials say they celebrate the shift, which they say validates the effectiveness of the electronic enforcement programs. Still, fewer citations mean the loss of what has for some local governments become reliable revenue.

Altogether, at least 45 Maryland jurisdictions with speed camera enforcement programs collected nearly $70 million in fines last fiscal year, according to a report by the Maryland comptroller. The amount is about $100,000 less than the previous year, but it reflects revenue reported by a greater number of municipalities than the previous year.

The cameras remain a big source of funding for many local governments, and some continue to have strong revenue streams from them. Prince George’s County, for example, collected $13.1 million in fines last fiscal year, nearly $5 million more than in fiscal 2012. Montgomery, Baltimore and Howard counties also had significant increases in revenue from their speed cameras, according to the report.

Declines, however, have been the trend in smaller towns. Mount Rainier, Hyattsville and New Carrollton, which are in Prince George’s, last year reported that the costs of running their speed camera programs were greater than the revenue they generated.

In Mount Rainier, a city of about 8,500 residents and an annual budget of about $5 million, the money collected in the first years of the program turned into an unexpected cushion that allowed it to make purchases it couldn’t otherwise afford during an economic slowdown. The windfall paid for new police cars, surveillance cameras and other public safety initiatives.

But Mount Rainier’s most profitable camera, which was on Rhode Island Avenue, had to be taken down after the school it was near moved. That left only one camera, which is in an area with less traffic. Revenue has since decreased from $1,772,603 in fiscal 2011 to less than $25,000 this fiscal year, according to the city’s financial records.

New Carrollton Police Capt. William Everts said revenue generated by that city’s four speed cameras also has helped pay for public safety initiatives, including a truck that is equipped with a speed camera.

“The presence of the cameras causes people to slow down,” he said.“These cameras are unbiased machines. They don’t pick anyone in particular, they pick the speeders.”

In 2011, New Carrollton collected $729,569 in fines from the cameras. Last year, it received $295,268, but running the program costs nearly twice that. Everts said the cost of running the program includes the fees New Carrollton pays to its speed camera vendor, Optotraffic, and partial salaries for officers who review citations.

Under Maryland law, speed cameras can be used only within half a mile of a school, and the hours of enforcement are limited to between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. Drivers must be going at least 12 miles over the posted speed limit before they are fined, and the $40 ticket can be sent out only after the infractions have been reviewed by a sworn police officer. The Maryland State Highway Administration can also use speed cameras in work zones.

Municipalities also are scrambling to comply with new rules on the use of the cameras, which went into effect this month. As part of the changes, contractors responsible for the cameras can’t be paid based on the number of tickets issued by their cameras.

That change alone is likely to further decrease the overall revenue governments take in from the cameras while increasing their administrative costs.

Laurel Police Chief Richard McLaughlin said he is in negotiations about the fee the Maryland city will pay its contractor once the current contract expires. Revenue from the cameras went from a high of $2.5 million in 2012 to $1.5 million last year.

“My concern is that now it does appear to be more of a revenue generator because it has to provide enough funding to pay whatever the fee is,” McLaughlin said. “For example, if I am going to charge you $5,000 per site, that camera has to generate at least $5,000 worth of revenue per month to sustain itself.”

Has it worked? The numbers and revenue are dropping, he said. “People are more compliant; less violations are being issued. It has absolutely been an awesome tool,” McLaughlin said.

Some critics of speed camera programs say decreases in revenue are expected, but they attribute them mostly to changes stemming from problems that have plagued the programs. Baltimore City, for example, pulled its cameras offline after tests showed inaccurate speed readings. Jurisdictions also report the expenses of their programs somewhat inconsistently, with some reporting officers’ time and others not doing so.

“If the programs are good for safety, even if they generate only a small amount of money every month, that would be legitimate cost,” said Ron Ely, a Montgomery County resident who tracks Maryland’s camera initiatives and is the founder of the Maryland Drivers Alliance. “If it is about revenue, then it has to at least pay for itself. You might see some local governments running into that sort of situation, but I don’t think that is very likely.”

Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, said that the programs are more visible now and that drivers are more aware of the cameras. The drop in revenue across Maryland also could signal that the cameras’ public safety intent is working, he said.

“We don’t want to continue to give tickets over and over again. We want people to learn the lesson if they get a ticket and change their behavior,” he said. “Ideally, we want to get to a place where we don’t need the cameras. We know that won’t happen, but each year you want to see less and less people getting tickets.”

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Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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