Third Avenue would likely be a focus of camera enforcement of transit lanes and crosswalks. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

On Monday, the Washington State House of Representatives passed a bill to expand the use of traffic safety cameras (House Bill 1793) to reduce several types of traffic violations. The bill has been a major priority for disability rights and transit advocates this year since it would allow cameras to capture violations by motorists blocking intersections, crosswalks, and transit lanes. Currently, only a law enforcement officer can give traffic tickets, and, given the pervasiveness of illegal driving behavior, they are catching only a tiny fraction of infractions.

Passage of the bill in the House is a major first step since a similar one last year did not even make it out of the Rules Committee for consideration by the full House. Since the bill has been made “necessary to implement the budget,” it may have legs to move and find passage in the Washington State Senate, despite only 12 days remaining in the legislative session.

The bill was passed primarily on a party line vote (57-41) with the Democratic majority easily lifting it across the line. Democrats batted down unhelpful amendments from Republicans prior to a final vote, and Republicans made willfully uninformed floor speeches in opposition to the bill even though it would not have any implication to their own legislative districts.

Following passage in the House, Mayor Jenny Durkan commended the House in passing the bill and urged the upper chamber to do the same. She also reiterated why it was major priority of city government to see it enacted into law.

“As we tackle the Seattle Squeeze together and keep building a city of the future, this is a long-overdue step in helping ensure transit, people, and goods can move through our city quickly and safely,” Mayor Durkan said in a statement. “With this law in place, the City of Seattle could do more to expand access to transportation for all users, improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists, ensure more reliable transit, and manage congestion. It will also free up resources to allow Seattle Police Department officers to address other public safety needs in our city, and reduce the significant risks they face when enforcing our traffic laws.”

Transportation Choices Coalition echoed the mayor in the urgency for the upper chamber to pass the bill into law and its vital importance to safety and mobility.

“We have been determined to keep this bill moving forward, and have worked with partners and allies to keep it viable time and again this session,” said Kelsey Mesher, Advocacy Director at Transportation Choices Coalition. “Passing the House gets us a step closer to the ultimate goal of safe, accessible crosswalks and improved mobility for people in downtown Seattle. But we have more to do, and it’s time to let our Senators know how important this is.”

Representative Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Seattle) has been shepherding the bill, finding compromise to get some version passed. The bill is trimmed down from its earlier draft, allowing only the City of Seattle to install traffic safety cameras for additional uses and only as a year-and-a-half pilot program through the end of 2021. However, the program would likely be extended and the requested report on the pilot program performance could help build that case.

Seattle would have the additional authority to use cameras to capture violations in the following circumstances:

  • Stopping in intersections (“blocking the box”) and crosswalks;
  • Stopping or driving in transit-only lanes;
  • Stopping in areas designated for boarding and alighting public transit vehicles (e.g., bus stops and ferries);
  • Stopping or driving in other types of restricted lanes; and
  • Stopping in entries and exits designated for emergency vehicles.

In setting up new cameras, Seattle would need to provide clear signage and adequate public notice prior to activation. Possible locations for cameras would also be restricted to very specific arterial and midblock areas, including:

  1. Streets in Downtown Seattle where office, retail, supportive services, and housing may be present;
  2. Streets within a half-mile of Downtown Seattle where the aforementioned uses are present;
  3. Portions of the SR-99 corridor for up to three miles outside of Downtown Seattle; and
  4. Streets up to one mile from qualifying SR-99 portions that connect to SR-99.

This should help Seattle realize previously stated objectives to install cameras at five key locations in South Lake Union, Denny Triangle, Chinatown-International District, and Downtown Seattle.

Initially, use of the cameras would only allow the City of Seattle to issue warning notices to violators until January 1, 2020. After that, upon second violation, the City could fine motorists who fail to comply with the traffic laws regulated by the cameras. The sole exception would be to truck drivers who park in transit lanes and high-occupancy vehicle lanes between midnight and 5am, in which case they would only receive warning notices during the pilot program.

The way that the bill is able to stay alive this late into the legislative session is that there is a financial tie into the state budget. Fifty percent of revenue generated by the cameras, after capital and operations costs are covered by fines, would go to state coffers via the Highway Safety Fund. Cameras though are not cash cows by any means, so the kind of revenue going to the state likely would be small during the first year-and-a-half of the pilot program. Installation of a single camera typically costs about $10,000 and the processing of violations are done by third party vendors in addition to City staff time and court processing costs when tickets are appealed.

The bill now goes to the Washington State Senate, which will need to expedite it through the review and approval process if it is to find final passage before the end of April 28th, the last day of the legislative session.

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Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. With stints in great cities like Bellingham and Cork, Stephen currently lives in Seattle. He primarily covers land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.