Photo by Cowgirl Jules on Flickr.

Today, Mary Cheh’s DC Council committee, which oversees transportation, is marking up 13 bills on topics from Bloomingdale flooding (affected homeowners can get money) to recycling demolished building materials (contractors have to do it). 2 we’ve been closely following have changed significantly in this round: one to let contractors park on residential streets, and the much-ballyhooed bill to lower speed camera fines.

On contractor parking, Cheh proposes a system of passes which licensed contractors can buy to park, for one day per pass, on residential streets. This is a great approach that points the way to a better solution for guest passes and much more.

The speed camera bill, meanwhile, lost some important provisions, like the fund dedicating some revenue to better streets and more safety programs. However, it gained a sunset provision which lets us see whether, as proponents hope, lowering fines would end the outcry against cameras or just give something away for little gain.

Contractor parking bill takes the right approach

The contractor parking bill (committee report) will let licensed contractors get day passes to park on residential streets where they have jobs. Each pass will let them park for one day, until 5 pm. DDOT will set up a system for them to buy these passes, at a cost of $10 per day, and can adjust the rates in the future with a rulemaking.

This is a terrific solution to an important problem. (Full disclosure: I talked with Cheh’s staff about this approach.) Our streets are reserved for residents, but residents often have contractors working at their houses. Contractors currently get in the habit of just parking illegally and absorbing some number of tickets as the cost of business, a cost they broadly pass on to homeowners.

Instead of making a contractor play a “reverse lottery” that they might get a big ticket, it makes far more sense to simply charge a reasonable fee. Over time, it would make sense for DDOT to customize the fee to different areas. In neighborhoods with plentiful daytime parking, the fee could be lower, and maybe in the neighborhoods with greatest demand it should be higher.

You might ask, should this just apply to contractors? Some people have housecleaners, or nannies, or elder caregivers come to the house. What about them? The answer is simple: a day pass program can work for them too. Maybe the rates would be lower, but this is generally a good solution to the weaknesses of the residential permit parking (RPP) program, and a better approach than annual placards that are too easily abused for areas with high parking demand.

Will the speed camera bill bring peace?

Meanwhile, a committee print of Tommy Wells’ and Mary Cheh’s bill on lowering speed camera fines (committee report) has many changes, which Council sources say mostly came from Chairman Phil Mendelson. Mendelson is still chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, and he referred the bill sequentially to both committees. Therefore, he has the opportunity to make changes.

One significant change is that the bill no longer dedicates any revenue from cameras to more cameras, safety education, traffic officers, or redesigning roads for lower “design speeds,” as the original bill did.

As I’ve written many times, from an abstract policy point of view, lower fines make sense, as the level of fine doesn’t appear to correlate with driver behavior. However, also from an abstract policy point of view, politicians shouldn’t base their decisions on who shouts loudest, yet we know they do.

As Cheh noted in her opening statement at the hearing on the bill, the biggest motivation behind the bill is to remove public opposition that could stand in the way of more widespread safety-based enforcement. The question is, will this bill do that?

It could be that lowering fines suddenly creates a peace in the District where drivers and driver organizations generally accept cameras. Or, it might be that people who get tickets will scream about it just the same. While the purpose of the cameras shouldn’t be and shouldn’t have been revenue, now that they’re here, there are other things one could spend money on besides buying down fines. Is it worth it?

We can’t really know. The rationale for creating a special fund to help with future camera purchases was that it would make it easier for MPD to get new cameras without such a long and tortured process as it had for this last round. On the other hand, DC budget director Eric Goulet argued in his testimony that the fund wouldn’t really end the need for the council to specifically approve new camera spending and contracts anyway, so it doesn’t matter.

Another way to deal with this uncertainty would be to make the new fines temporary. Let’s see how things work out for a year or so. If there’s peace in camera land, then it was the right move and should be permanent. If we’re still having the same arguments, then DC might as well take the revenue for all the headaches.

Fortunately, the new committee print does just that. It includes a sunset provision that it will expire at the end of the 2013 fiscal year (in September 2013). This also means that this bill wouldn’t affect the FY2014 budget, which the Council will debate this spring.

It still does mean the bill would use up some of the “unanticipated revenue” that is coming in this year, instead of it going to another program such as the Housing Production Trust Fund.

On the other hand, the fines now aren’t going down as much. The original bill set fines at $50 for speeding up to 20 mph over the limit, but now proposes levels of $50 for up to 10 mph over (which MPD doesn’t usually ticket for) and $75 for 11-20 over. That probably means it will cost less, though it also means it might be less likely to assuage angry drivers who got a lot of tickets.

Another change, and not a great one, is that the bill now does not distinguish between fines for automated enforcement and fines from a police officer. This is simpler, but wrong. The idea behind lower automated fines is that there should be an inverse relationship between severity and certainty: if the chance of getting caught is higher, the punishment needn’t be so high. With a camera, that’s the case.

But if there’s an area without cameras, but officers are doing some in-person ticket writing, the certainty is low again, so the fine needs to stay higher. Besides, low fines could make it harder for MPD to assign officers to writing tickets in safety trouble spots, since the tickets might not pay for the officer’s time any more.

Cheh’s committee is marking up the bill today, and then Mendelson’s will mark it up tomorrow. He could push for changes, for better or worse, at that point. Then it will go before the Council, where members could try to amend it to further change provisions or restore some from the original bill.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.