Pasco is turning on the traffic cameras to curb wrecks at its two busiest intersections.
After months of discussion, the city will begin issuing citations — and $125 fines — to owners of vehicles recorded speeding or running red lights as early as November.
Pasco will be the first of the Tri-Cities but will join about two dozen other Washington cities in embracing camera-based citations — a move critics say is about money more than safety.
Pasco leaders say it’s about managing aggressive driving in two of its highest-volume intersections.
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You guessed it — at Road 68 and Burden Boulevard and at Court Street and 20th Avenue.
This week, the city council authorized starting the program on a 5-1 vote, with Councilman Saul Martinez opposing it and Mayor Matt Watkins absent.
“We don’t seem to have any other option,” said Mayor Pro Tem Craig Maloney. “It’s not going to get better in time. It’s only going to get worse.”
Martinez was unconvinced. He fears the automatic citations will create animosity.
They also could discourage car owners from lending their vehicles to friends and family for fear they’ll be stuck with the bill for bad driving.
“This eliminates a lot of possibilities for people to get around,” he said. “It doesn’t feel right for me.”
The Kennewick City Council also has discussed it, but police Chief Ken Hohenberg has little appetite for the idea.
Thanks to the voter-approved public safety sales tax, Kennewick has a dedicated traffic team to work its problem areas, such as Columbia Center Boulevard.
Hohenberg said officers, not computers, should decide when citations are warranted.
“Police officers have the awesome power of discretion that technology does not provide,” he said.
Richland officials told the Herald they also have no current plans to install any traffic ticket cameras.
How it works
The Pasco cameras won’t go up until the city hires a contractor to run the system.
That won’t happen until later this month, when the council will consider a contract with a controversial Arizona vendor, Redflex Traffic Systems.
Redflex would install and manage the system, starting with North 20th and Court and Road 68 and Burden Boulevard.
Both have unacceptably high accident rates that are only going to go higher as more people move to the area.
For example, a survey last September showed 76 red light runners at the Road 68 intersection in just 12 hours. Of those, 59 would have been citations, said city officials.
The cameras will be installed this fall and will record the vehicle. Redflex is not allowed to record the faces of the driver or passengers. Tickets will be sent to the registered owner of the vehicles.
Motorists will have about a month to adjust to the new cameras before citations are issued.
Vehicle owners can dispute the citation if they were not the driver, and state law says they can’t be forced to identify the person who was using the car.
Pasco City Manager Dave Zabell said the goal isn’t to make money. Any revenue above the cost of the program will finance improvements to make city streets safer.
Camera operator’s troubled past
Pasco’s traffic camera partner, Redflex, has a troubled history.
In 2012, company representatives were caught bribing officials in Chicago to award contracts, leading to an investigation by the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney General, as well as several civil suits.
A Redflex lobbyist and a high-ranking city official were prosecuted and convicted.
The company’s top executives, including its chief executive officer, were ousted and the company adopted new policies to prevent future misconduct. The case concluded with a 2016 agreement that led to a $20 million settlement with Chicago.
Zabell said several Washington cities have contracted with Redflex with good results. One of them is Fife, a Tacoma suburb where Zabell formerly served as city manager.
He even got a ticket there thanks to the traffic camera for rolling through a right turn slowly but without coming to a full stop. The experience changed his driving habits.
“It shows your car and what you did. It’s pretty hard to argue,” he said. “I pay a lot more attention now.”
Impact on safety
Traffic camera foes say they’re chiefly a means to raise money and do little to enhance public safety.
A survey of seven Washington cities showed traffic cameras reduce right-angle or “T-bone” type accidents but increase rear-end ones as drivers slam on brakes when lights turn yellow instead of rolling on through.
There were fewer injuries in the right-angle crashes but more in the rear-end ones. The advantage is that injuries in rear-end crashes tend to be less severe than the other kinds.
The Court and 20th intersection has 2.86 wrecks for every million vehicles that pass through — nearly three times the “acceptable” rate of one wreck per million vehicles.
City officials say those figures predate recent traffic light work and lane changes meant to improve traffic flow.
The Road 68 and Burden Boulevard intersection gets 1.2 wrecks for every million vehicles passing by. The figure is expected to rise as the city’s west side expands.
Traffic infraction cameras have had a bumpy ride in Washington since they were first legalized in 2005.
As cities rushed to install them, Tim Eyman and a citizen group, BanCams.com Washington State, pushed a series of local ballot measures.
Voters overwhelmingly opposed the cameras but the movement halted in 2012, when the Washington State Supreme Court ruled local voters can’t ban the devices.
Pasco is only the fifth city in Eastern Washington to do so, following Moses Lake, Spokane, Wenatchee and Yakima, according to to Municipal Research and Services Center, a nonprofit that supports local government.
Many other cities, including Kennewick, have cameras that record at intersections but do not issue automatic tickets and are not intended for traffic enforcement.
Though Pasco is starting with two trouble spots, the open-ended ordinance allows the devices at all major intersections, railroad crossings and school zones.
Police Chief Bob Metzger pledged that the department will consult with the city council when there’s a need for them at more locations.