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Boomtown: DC Swamp Issues More than 2.7 Million Traffic Tickets, Collecting $324 Million for Government

DC Traffic Signal PAUL J. RICHARDSAFPGetty Images
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
PENNY STARR

The Washington, DC, government prides itself on its transparency, but digging up the facts about it’s red light camera and other ticketing policies is difficult, with officials referring reporters to outdated information and some data only coming through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

It is also necessary to slice and dice the facts because the revenue the District receives is not the same as the money violators owe but have not paid.

For example, Breitbart News asked the D.C. Office of Tax Revenue about the money generated through tickets, and the office responded that in Fiscal Year 2017, “photo ticket revenue” was slightly over $100 million and about $98 million in Fiscal Year 2018.

Non-photo tickets (parking, speeding, and other infractions) totaled $62 million in 2017 and almost $64 million in 2018, according to the office.

But that does not accurately reflect just how much money the District generates from its ticketing programs, including from the 145 red light cameras set up across the area and uncollected tickets.

AAA Mid-Atlantic keeps close tabs on the District and its ticketing policies, releasing its latest findings in February of this year:

Call it the “Rumpelstiltskin effect.” The District processed 2,719,600 parking and traffic tickets during Fiscal Year 2018. In a “straw-into-gold” metamorphosis, those citations carried a mind-boggling value of a third of a billion dollars or $324,531,271. The District sure must have a knack for spinning out parking and traffic tickets. Maybe it is the other way around. Drivers either can’t help themselves because they are creatures of habit, or perhaps they are gluttons for punishment who persistently love paying hundreds of millions of dollars in parking and photo-enforced ticket fines each year. Skeptics wonder if the city’s “increasingly aggressive ticketing is designed to boost revenue?”

No matter how you explain it, the District issues and processes an average of 2.7 million parking, photo enforcement and moving violation tickets year after year without fail. Ticket totals increased in the city during the past fiscal year, which ended September 30, 2018. The District Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is responsible for processing and adjudicating parking and traffic tickets.

All told, the District issued 1,417,001 parking tickets during FY 2018 for violations ranging from illegally parking at a meter to failure to deposit payment at a meter. That compares to 1,227,525 photo citations issued by photo enforcement cameras in FY 2018, and 75,074 moving violation citations handed down during the budget cycle by law enforcement officers on patrol in cruisers.

AAA Mid-Atlantic also used data from the District DMV Adjudication Caseload studies, which show DMV processed 2.6 million citations in Fiscal Year 2017, which increased to $2.7 million in 2018.

“That means in the period from FY 2016 to FY 2018, the District issued 8,167,607 parking and traffic citations,” AAA Mid-Atlantic reported. “Collectively, those parking and traffic citations were valued at just shy of a billion dollars, or $930,473,968, tabulates AAA Mid-Atlantic.”

The population of D.C. is 713,244.

“In the years to come, District ticket revenue could increase substantially in the wake of the draconian fine regime and the tougher penalties for traffic infractions that went into effect on January 4, 2019,” said John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s manager of public and government affairs. “In some cases, certain fines doubled.”

“With the increased fines, the District is burying some motorists under an avalanche of debt and imposing an ‘undue burden on those who cannot afford to pay,’” Townsend said in the report.

Breitbart News also asked D.C. Metropolitan Police Department and the District of Columbia Department of Transportation (DDOT) the same question: “Do you have data to show how much money is generated at what intersections, roads, or stop signs?”

Breitbart News received two different answers. 

From DDOT: “DMV does not collect the data by camera or intersection.”

From the police: “The DC DMV captures this data.”

But Washington Business Journal got much more information from its FOIA request:

The southbound lane of Kenilworth Avenue in D.C. serves mostly as a busy feeder onto Interstate 295 or Benning Road NE. But it also serves to boost the District’s bottom line — the speeding camera positioned at its 600 block generated more than $20 million in fines in fiscal 2016.

That one camera, only in place for half of that fiscal year, accounts for more than 10 percent of the roughly $190 million in speeding and red light camera fines issued in 2016. It is by far the most prolific of the 145 camera locations in the District, according to records obtained by the Washington Business Journal as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.

The top 10 cameras that brought in the highest dollar amounts are each speed cameras, and most are positioned at major arteries into and out of the District. Three of the cameras are on I-295, with the additional one on Kenilworth right next to it. Two more are on New York Avenue NE, and there is one on South Dakota Avenue NE and on 1400 S. Capitol St. SE. Two are at Washington Circle on K Street NW.

Breitbart News also asked DDOT about whether the red light cameras and speeding tickets reduce deaths — one of the justifications for implementing the red camera program, first announced in 1999.

The agency sent Breitbart News a link via email to outside studies on that issue, the latest dated 2010.

But Washington City Paper reported in September 2018 the opposite data from that in the outdated studies.

At the same time, and despite the surge in tickets, traffic fatalities have also been on the rise: 26 deaths in 2015, 28 in 2016, and 30 in 2017. So far this year, there have been 23 traffic fatalities, on par with where we were this time last year. (The last publicly available traffic safety report shows that the number of crashes fluctuated between 2013, 2014, and 2015. The city has not produced publicly available data for 2016 or later.)

And those familiar with D.C. ticketing policies also show it is disproportionately harsh on low-income people.

AAA Mid-Atlantic revealed how tickets hurt people struggling financially. The District is garnishing  District tax refunds and “siccing” collection agencies on deadbeat ticketholders.

“Debt collectors brought in approximately $127 million in outstanding debts, fines, and fees, such as overdue parking and traffic ticket fines and ticket debt, owed to the District Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) from FY 2014 through FY 2017,” AAA Mid-Atlantic reported on information from D.C.’s chief financial officer.

Money collected through parking and photo citation enforcement is kept in the District’s General Fund, which is used to fund government operations, debt financing, and to subsidize water and sewer services.

In 2018, the General Fund sat at about $9.1 billion, according to Washington City Paper.

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