In Speed Cameras, City Finds a Treasure Trove, But Can Take Only a Fraction to Its Coffer

A cash-strapped city that has been scrambling to recover thousands of dollars of lost revenue will probably get some relief through newly installed speed cameras. A recession-hit economy has cost the city a loss in state funds and a reduction of property taxes due to declining house prices. The city has been using means like a $5 hike in parking permit fees to recover from such loss of revenues.

The city first installed speed cameras in 3 locations: Metzerott Road, Paint Branch Parkway and Rhode Island Avenue. A new camera was recently installed on Route 1. Per state regulations, all these cameras must be installed within half a mile from an educational institution, such as a local school or the University of Maryland.

In last May, the city awarded the speed camera contract to a Lanham-based company called Optotraffic. In March, the city conducted a public hearing on the subject.

Cameras went into operation on November 15. As of close of business on December 7, a total of 8663 citations were issued, which roughly averages 377 per day. Out of the $40 charged per ticket, the city receives $24 and Optotraffic receives $16; this means that the City is getting $9048 per day. If the trend continues, the yearly revenue from the cameras will be around $3,302,520. For this fiscal year, which ends in June 2011, the projected revenue will be around $2 million.

Though the city plans to install more cameras within its boundary, there is a major caveat on how much the city can keep these revenue figures. The city can only take an amount equal to 10% of city’s total operating budget, which equals $12.5 million. This means the city can keep around $1.25 million; the rest must be returned to the state.

“Do I like the aspect of the law where the state should get the excess money? [I’ve] mixed feelings, but I doubt they will be getting much,” said District 4 council member Marcus Afzali on the part of revenues the state will be getting.

Some residents also think the state should not be given a free ride to enjoy 90% of the revenue. “My argument is that we should not be forced to pay money to the State from this program, when they have cut our share of the Highway User Revenue fund by 90%. In my opinion, we should simply stop issuing tickets, which will save the city the cost of reviewing and validating those tickets. In essence, after we hit the 10% number, our efforts are going to the state government, not the city, but the city would still incur all the associated costs related to the operation of the cameras. Hardly fair, in my opinion,” said north College Park resident Mathew Byrd.

But the council members don’t agree on such a strategy. “We’d be in violation of state law if we hold this money back.  I certainly don’t think that’s a wise idea,” said District 1 council member Patrick Wojahn.

District 2 council member Bob Catlin also echoed Wojahn’s concern: “Perhaps people should try to function in the real world rather than an imaginary world.”

Other residents support the cameras, but are skeptical about the revenues because of “hidden” costs. “Who paid for the equipment? Who pays to maintain the equipment? Who installed it? That all costs money and last time I checked there is no such thing as a free ride,” said resident Kennis Termini.

The revenue figure from speed camera will most likely decline over the time in future. “The current rate of citations will most likely go down as people become accustomed to the cameras being there, even if we move them within the areas we’ve set up,” said Wojahn

“Optotraffic reports that Metzerott rate has decreased significantly as expected and desired,” said the city’s public safety director, Bob Ryan. The Metzerott Road location has been proven to be a goldmine, yielding the highest number of revenue figures.

In addition to the 10% budget cap, there are other limitations. There is a small administrative cost of around $3-4 per ticket. Also, the revenues from traffic tickets cannot be spent on anything the city wants; they must be spent on projects related to traffic and pedestrian safety.

A treasure trove.

When it comes to how to spend this extra revenue, most in the council said they haven’t given much thought to the subject, but will figure something together. There are, however, a few exceptions.

District 2 council member Catlin said he prefers the revenues should be spent in line with the strategic plan that the city finalized last summer. “Once we figure out the revenues better, we should look to the city’s strategic plan and the five year Capital Improvement Project plan and see how the funds can best be spent. I am not inclined to amend this year’s budget to add any significant new spending over the next seven months, but would program these new revenues into the budget planning for fiscal year 2012.”

Catlin also thinks a better candidate for the new revenue spending is about repairing city’s ailing streets. “We have lost over $1,000,000 in state aid for street repair in the last two years, with no end to these cuts in sight (2015).  So I would not call these revenues, as significant as they appear to be, a windfall to be used to fund a variety of new or expanded city programs,” he added.

District 1 council member Wojahn also has a wish list, which includes more bike lanes and pedestrian signals. “I would like us to work with the county to install new safety measures on Rhode Island Avenue, along the lines that folks were suggesting at the NCPCA meeting a couple months ago. I’d also like to see if we could use it on additional bike lanes around north College Park, perhaps along Edgewood or Lackawanna Street.  If we get enough, maybe we could do an additional pedestrian signal on US 1 somewhere,” said Wojahn.

Other council members want to take a wait-and-see approach.

“We haven’t had official discussions yet though, but it’s a good idea to start early. I’d want to sit down with other council members and seriously consider all options and see where the need is the greatest,” said Afzali. His counterpart Denise Michelle also thinks the same.

“[It’s a] good question, but Mayor and Council hasn’t discussed, and I think it’s too early to speculate. I’m sure we’ll be discussing it fairly soon,” said mayor Andrew Fellows.

10 thoughts on “In Speed Cameras, City Finds a Treasure Trove, But Can Take Only a Fraction to Its Coffer”

  1. I believe the portion of funding returned to the State is intended to dissuade local jurisdictions (not specifically College Park, but any county/municipality in the state) — which are primarily responsible for the placement of most cameras — from being incentivised to place the cameras where they may not be an appropriate fit… that is: with the primary intent being revenue generation rather than safety.

    Though I do agree that the issue of continued administrative costs without being compensated for those expenses is a valid concern; but one best poised to the state legislature rather than city government. 21-809’s is still a pretty new law & nothing says it can’t be refined.

  2. College Park changed the start of the 30mph zone on Metzerott Road eastbound to encompass the new camera location. We’ve got documentation which proves the city DPW added the new “Speed Limit 30” sign in November, the same month the camera on that road started issuing tickets. If average speeds have decreased there it is simply because the camera location used to be marked as 40mph. We sent an inquiry to the city regarding this last week and are still awaiting a response.

    Do not think for a moment that revenue was not a consideration in this change, especially since ‘losing’ money over 10% of the city’s budget is now apparently a concern. But don’t worry, other towns have constructed creative bookkeeping techniques to keep more of that revenue so I’m sure College Park will figure something out. Failing in that, I’m sure you can ‘refine’ the law.

  3. Since Metzerott Road is a county road and not owned by the City, the speed limits there are determined by the County and as we know from past experience, not easy to have the County change.

  4. Dear Mr Catlin,
    The camera on Metzerott Road is a SPEED TRAP. I’m sorry that the city decided it has to use a camera to generate funds. I’ve lived in Adelphi and College Park for 60 years and traveled Metzerott Road on a daily basis.

    What was the purpose of placing the camera on Metzerott Road? Have there been any serious accidents related to speed? How many each year? Any bodily injury? Have any pedestrians been hit?

    If the purpose of the camera is not a money maker as I’ve been told by Marcus and Denise why didn’t the council have a 30 day warning period for this camera. I understand that a municipality only has to have a 30 day warning period for the first camera, but they certainly have the option of having a 30 day warning period for all new cameras.

    Speed never seemed to be a concern when the 30mph speed limit sign just east of the archive entrance was covered by tree growth for over 25 years. The county highway dept and the city of college park never felt that it was necessary to trim that growth until a month before placing the speed TRAP.

    I’m sorry that College Park has gotten so much publicity as the Speed Trap Capital of Maryland. If that was the purpose, the council certainly has succeeded.

    Sorry that CP has stooped to this level.

  5. Metzerott Road flows directly into the University and provides the most direct access from College Park to points westward (Adelphi, Takoma Park, Silver Spring). Because of this, Metzerott should provide safe travel for all types of users, especially pedestrians and bicyclists. Slower automobile speeds are a step in the right direction for creating a more equitable transportation link for all types of users. Funds generated from the speed cameras need to go toward improving safety for more vulnerable users (i.e. those not in cars). These types of improvements will begin to transform College Park into the type of college town that most of us want it to be and truly make it the “best place to raise kids” in Maryland.

  6. I absolutely AGREE that Metzerott road should provide safe travel, it ALWAYS has. The problem is the SPEED TRAP. Why doesn’t the city insist that the road become 30mph the entire way from Adelphi to Univ Blvd if the council is truly concerned about safety and not money. The stretch from Adelphi to New Hampshire is 25mph. Maybe all of Metzerott should be 25mph. If there is a major speeding problem and the speed limit cannot be changed to 30mph for some reason why not put up a flashing sign at the point where the road becomes 30mph. Why is it necessary to have a SPEED TRAP?

  7. Where is the outrage over this invasive and un-Constitutional violation of our civil liberties? How can the city of College Park be profiting over victimless crimes because some machine said a car was traveling at a rate of velocity over an arbitrary amount that was set by some bureaucrat? This violates the Fourth and Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. The Fourth says a warrant needs to be issued before the government can even SEARCH! So they cannot even take pictures of our car without a warrant. I don’t care what any MD judge says, because the Constitution is clear. The Fifth Amendments guarantees no loss of liberty or property without due process. Some of us have to work several hours to pay the fine to the city of College Park, so CP has essentially seized our liberty for those hours to pay off the penalty. Before anyone says it I know you have a right to hearing, but at the hearing you are guilty until proven innocent, but due process guarantees things be the other way around.

    Remember, all this is for “violating” some arbitrary speed limit that in someone’s opinion thinks is “safe.” Please tell me how government owns our kinetic energy. Yes if I hit someone, damage someone’s property, or even impede a pedestrians progress that’s a different story. Nobody is questioning that.

    I wish people in our community, myself included, would demand that these all seeing eyes in the sky be torn down. But government officials will do everything to prevent that from happening, because not only does it allow them to control our behavior (determining our velocity), control our labor (the hours we spend to pay the penalty), but they also get to spend more of our money. As if the money they’ve confiscated from our property wasn’t enough, they need ever increasing amounts from us to pay outrageous salaries to city officials who come up with ever more creative ways to stifle business in this town. After all, they want more vacant stores and homes because then it allows them to “redevelop.” Not to mention, in light of Jack Johnson and Leslie Johnson, some of the kickbacks government officials must be getting from this speed camera company in Lanham. Someone needs to investigate this company because some jerk there will be making hundreds of millions of dollars from people forced to pay him. Also, I doubt the police department and government agencies will be billed when their vehicles violated the imposed speed limit.

    This is down-right theft for a victimless crime. If I were able to rob millions of dollars from people I would go to prison for a long time and forced to pay restitution, yet since it’s the city of College Park and their friends at the Lanham speed camera company, in some sense of sick-twisted logic it is considered “legal.”

  8. How about this idea: state keeps the portion outlined in the article and it goes into an “account” that the city can use towards rebuilding route 1 (or any other road in CP)

    I know, I know…..too good of an idea / makes too much sense for a state or local beauracrat to comprehend

    and the liberal left wonders why most of this country does not trust or respect gov’t entities

  9. 10% of $12.5 million is $1.25 million. I don’t know that paving is considered “traffic and pedestrian safety”. I’d much rather see this money go towards common sense improvements to Route 1: pedestrian refuges, timed signal crosswalks, perhaps a traffic lights (Hartwick Rd). Given the current fiscal situation, SHA is years away from funding even a small portion of reconstructing Route 1. The city needs to move forward on common sense, cost effective measures that benefit a lot of people. Bike lanes are great, but they won’t accomplish much if they are installed on low-traffic, residential streets.

  10. Just received my $40 revenue generating ticket from CP today. Thank you. Inform the businesses in CP that I will no longer spend my money at them since I don’t want to risk losing money to the City’s speed cameras. If they were in a school zone they might serve a public safety function. But they don’t as the are now situated.

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