Doubts about revised Prince George's, Md., speed camera plan

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Several Prince George's County Council members voiced concerns Tuesday over County Executive Jack B. Johnson's decision to overhaul a plan to deploy dozens of speed cameras, with some saying that he was putting revenue ahead of safety and risked weakening the county's standing with state legislators.

Johnson (D) said last week that a plan to have cameras in 50 school zones would be scrapped, and that county police would use a much smaller number of mobile camera units in targeted areas. The cameras were authorized last year state legislation that came after years of lobbying by the county government.

During their opening session of the year, several council members said they wanted a better explanation of the reasoning behind the change. They also expressed concern that future legislative requests by the county would be taken less seriously in Annapolis, given the intense effort that went into getting the speed camera law passed.

"We're going back and asking the state for other things," said council member Tony Knotts (D-Temple Hills). "Are they going to take us serious . . . It's ridiculous. It's a disgrace."

"We spent a considerable amount of political capital," said council member William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville). "It was kind of a surprise to many of us."

Johnson said last week that projections showed the original plan, which included fixed cameras, would result in about 124,000 tickets being issued in the first year. That would bring in more than $3 million, but the county would net only about $100,000 if it collected on 65 percent of the tickets issued, Johnson said.

Although he insisted that revenue was not the reason to go with only mobile units, Johnson said last week that he could "not justify" the 50-site plan for that small a financial return. He also said the $40 tickets -- generated by the cameras when vehicles were spotted going 12 mph or more over the limit -- would be a burden on already struggling citizens.

On Tuesday, Johnson's spokesman, John Erzen, said that under the old plan, much of the revenue would have gone to the vendors who were to install and maintain the fixed cameras. He said that by having county police operate mobile units, all of the ticket revenue, minus expenses, could be put back toward public safety.

"It doesn't make sense for private industry to get all that money," Erzen said.

Erzen said the county's plan was to start with six to eight mobile units. He gave no timeline for when the first unit would hit the streets.

Council Chairman Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel) said Tuesday that the numbers attributed to Johnson in news reports "didn't add up to me; not at all." He said he wanted to hear Johnson's rationale firsthand and to find out "whether it's etched in stone or whether it's something we can go back and get modified."

"Even if the numbers did add up, I thought that the policy we were taking . . . was about schoolkids," Dernoga added. "We've had school children hit and killed."

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