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In first year of operation, Spokane’s school zone cameras net $1.2 million from speeders

UPDATED: Wed., March 8, 2017, 9:14 a.m.

In just one year, cameras capturing speeders near two Spokane elementary schools are close to generating the same amount of fines as the 15 red-light cameras citywide, and the City Council is considering adding more.

Fines paid by speeders captured on camera near Longfellow and Finch elementary schools in 2016 totaled $1.2 million. That’s three-quarters of the $1.6 million collected from the more than a dozen cameras monitoring 10 intersections citywide.

The $2.8 million raised for all cameras will be used to fund construction aimed at slowing traffic and protecting pedestrians, including students walking to school. Money collected from tickets issued at red lights has been earmarked for this purpose since the first cameras were installed in 2008, but the City Council will soon have to devise a permanent plan for how to use the money collected from school-zone speeders.

“I think the council is very uniform on this, to spend this money for the purposes that people expect: actual improvement to traffic and school safety,” said City Councilman Breean Beggs.

School-zone fines begin with a larger monetary penalty than infractions occurring at red lights, as outlined under state law. Fines begin at $214 in school zones and can reach as high as $400, said Craig Bulkley, the Spokane police officer in charge of the red-light program. Many of the infractions captured on traditional red-light cameras, including failure to signal or failure to stop, typically net fines of $48.

The red-light money, which totals $10.8 million over a little more than eight years, is allocated annually according to traffic safety priorities forwarded by Spokane’s 29 neighborhood councils. Both Beggs and City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear pushed this year for additional signage on a stretch of Grand Boulevard, near Manito Park, to slow drivers entering the thoroughfare’s 20 mph zone.

“People are just ignoring it,” said Kinnear.

The shift in allowed speed is a remnant from a City Council action in 1977, made in response to protests from the neighborhood about safety for children at the park.

Mary Carr, interim chairwoman of the Manito Neighborhood Council, has lived off Grand on the north side of Manito Park for 18 years. She said the speeding issue is caused by the changing nature of Grand, which was originally designed for horse carriages and street cars, and a lack of police presence along the road to slow drivers.

“It never was meant to be what it is now,” Carr said. “It shouldn’t be a thoroughfare, like the way people use it.”

By the end of next year, the city will install a speed feedback sign showing drivers how fast they’re traveling on Grand between 18th and 20th with money from the red-light fund. Beggs and Kinnear said they hoped the compliance data would guide traffic calming measures on other South Hill arterials, which have been stressed by increased development both within Spokane and outside city limits.

“All those cars have to get down the South Hill, to wherever they’re going,” Beggs said. “Whether it’s High Drive, it’s Bernard, it’s Freya or it’s Ray, uniformly everyone says drivers are going too fast.”

Beggs said dense development approved by Spokane County on the far southern edges of the South Hill are the main culprit, but development closer to Manito also likely will add stress to the system.

The Comstock Neighborhood is prepping for increased development at Grand and 29th Avenue, following the construction of a new restaurant and a planned move for the Washington Trust Bank location in the Manito Shopping Center, said Steve Smith, chairman of the neighborhood council.

“It only feels like we’re being proactive, and saying traffic will increase here,” said Smith, who moved to the neighborhood about six months ago. Comstock residents have asked for a traffic study with the expected increase in visitors, but also support efforts to reduce speeds on Grand.

“We want to support each other, if you divert traffic from one center, it’s going to go somewhere else,” Smith said.

Before approving the traffic slowing measures on Grand, City Council President Ben Stuckart initially balked, saying the city had just installed a pedestrian beacon light at 18th Avenue. Residents in the Manito and Rockwood neighborhoods, as well as city staff, convinced Stuckart the lights promoted pedestrian safety, but did not stop speeders.

“Traffic has not slowed down there,” Stuckart said. “But the light is working, it’s getting people across the street.”

Stuckart’s initial concern was that too much money was being concentrated in one area of the city. City Councilwoman Candace Mumm worked to develop a pedestrian plan in her Five Mile Neighborhood before joining the City Council, which has its own citywide list of priorities. Stuckart urged the council late last month to acknowledge the clogged arterial problem isn’t unique to the South Hill.

“We have the same problem in every neighborhood,” Mumm told council members at a planning meeting, after Beggs and Kinnear brought their concerns to the full panel. “I appreciate your issues, but we have Maple, Ash and Monroe.”

The city’s two school-zone cameras brought in larger-than-expected fine dollars last year, leading the City Council to establish an impermanent formula for spending in December. By resolution, the panel pledged dollar amounts in 2017 and 2018 for construction of pedestrian safety and traffic slowing measures near schools, which will include sidewalk improvements near Sacajawea Middle School and Browne Elementary, intersection improvements at Shadle Park High School and Sheridan Elementary, and speed signs near Franklin Elementary.

The council also agreed to hire a municipal court commissioner to adjudicate cases created by the automated camera system and a $550,000 outlay to pay the salaries of four neighborhood resource officers in the Spokane Police Department. Beggs said the city needs to look at ways of paying the officers through another source after the two-year compromise ends.

The city also is exploring additional school-zone cameras at Stevens and Lincoln Heights elementary schools. Despite the expansion, the city has not changed its forecasts of expected school-zone camera revenue at a little more than $1 million over each of the next two years.

Greg Francis, a Rockwood Neighborhood resident and neighborhood council member, said he supported efforts to slow traffic on Grand and the existing school-zone cameras, but he didn’t believe automated traffic control should be installed on South Hill arterials, an idea that was brought up by Beggs at a City Council meeting in early February.

“You look at how much revenue the program has brought in with just two schools, my gosh, that’s substantial and shocking,” Francis said. “I don’t want to see a bunch of people just being ticketed for driving through there.”

Such a camera on Grand also would be barred under current state law, which restricts them in Eastern Washington to railroad crossings, school zones and light-controlled intersections.

Both Beggs and Kinnear said regardless of the method, there’s a growing need to regulate traffic heading back downtown from a burgeoning South Hill.

“To really do it right, we have to look at the whole corridor,” Kinnear said.