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Matt Driscoll: Discussion about school zone speed cameras coming soon

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The wheels of city progress grind slowly.

Significant change takes time. Consultants are often involved.

And meetings. Progress requires many, many meetings.

One such meeting — relating to upcoming work of one such consultant — took place Wednesday afternoon, when City Councilman Ryan Mello convened the Infrastructure, Planning and Sustainability Committee he chairs.

There was important progress to report, related to the city’s continuing interest in launching an official Safe Routes to School program. It’s a subject folks like Mello and City Councilman Robert Thoms have been talking about for a long time and one that I’ve written about before.

But what made this particular meeting interesting was the bit of foreshadowing it involved.

Tacoma seems destined to engage in a serious conversation about school zone speed enforcement cameras.

Count on it, in fact.

The number of kids age 18 and younger who were hit by cars while walking or bicycling in Tacoma between 2010 and 2014

When it comes to Safe Routes to School, the big idea is pretty simple: making it safer for Tacoma schoolchildren to walk and bike to school.

Considering the sobering statistics — the Puyallup Watershed Initiative has found that, between 2010 and 2014, 222 kids ages 18 and under were hit by cars while walking or bicycling in Tacoma, an accident every eight days — doing something is kind of a no-brainer. The problem is particularly pronounced in Tacoma’s poorer, more racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods.

The good news: By the end of May, the city is expected to hire a consultant to study and report on what it will take to initiate a Safe Routes to School program — which is capitalized because it’s not just off-the-cuff wonk speak, it’s official wonk speak.

Safe Routes to School programs have been created in cities across the country. They involve improving pedestrian safety, including obvious stuff, like physical improvements to crosswalks, sidewalks and school zones, and more holistic efforts, like targeted education for drivers and pedestrians.

According to city of Tacoma spokeswoman Stacy Ellifritt, the cost of hiring said to-be-determined consultant is expected to be around $75,000. At that price, no further City Council action will be required, though City Manager T.C. Broadnax will need to sign off on the expenditure. (The Watershed Initiative has ponied up $10,000 of the cost.)

Results of the study are expected by early next year, according to Mello, and should yield a comprehensive breakdown of where Tacoma’s school zones and pedestrian safety network needs the most help.

And, of course, what it will all cost and how it might be paid for.

In order for me to support the revenue option of school zone cameras, I would want the moneys to be spent on school zones: City Councilman Robert Thoms

Which, like it or not, brings us back to school zone speed enforcement cameras. As Mello puts it, “I would be shocked if (enforcement cameras are) not a top tier recommendation,” from the study, mainly for safety but also as a potential sustainable source of Safe Routes to School revenue.

In discussing Safe Routes to School programs and the use of enforcement cameras, proponents agree that their biggest benefit is in modifying driver behavior and getting people to slow down in school zones. Flashing beacons at crosswalks are great, but a warning that potentially hits a driver’s wallet flashes more brightly. And cameras are much less expensive than cops.

That doesn’t mean that once we reach the point of having an enforcement camera discussion there won’t be pushback.

(Spoiler: There will be.)

“I don’t know that I would say ‘inevitable,’ ” Thoms told me when I suggested as much, regarding the likelihood Tacoma’s hired consultant will come back with a recommendation for speed enforcement cameras in school zones.

Mello and Thoms are both taking a wait-and-see approach to the study, which is fine and politically prudent. Neither is endorsing enforcement cameras at this point.

Still, implementing a full Safe Routes to School program won’t be cheap. This we already know.

We also know speed enforcement cameras are just one way the city might help pay for it. “My sense is (cameras could be a) pretty significant piece of the funding puzzle, if we wanted it to be,” Mello says.

The primary objective cannot be to generate revenue. I don’t think that would be well received by the community: City Councilman Ryan Mello on the potential of school zone speed cameras

Here’s the key: If the money generated from enforcement cameras in school zones (and only school zones) is dedicated to Safe Routes to School, and even more specifically, improving safety near schools that need it first — as Thoms is strongly advocating — then the case for the cameras probably starts to look a lot more appealing for constituents and especially parents of schoolchildren.

Mello also notes the importance of going “heavy on the education and heavy on the warnings, to change behavior and not just slap tickets on people” on their first offense.

All of this makes sense.

“The primary objective cannot be to generate revenue,” Mello says of potential enforcement cameras. “I don’t think that would be well received by the community.”

You don’t need to commission a poll to know that’s a correct read.

Courtesy: Matt Driscoll
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