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Originally published Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 8:02 PM

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$1 million a month? Tickets from school-zone speed cameras quickly add up

The city of Seattle could garner more than $1 million a month from new school-zone speed cameras if drivers are mailed $189 tickets at the rate they were in December. However, the mayor's office says the city will end up with much less than that in ticket revenue because of eventual changes in driving behavior, court reductions of fines and varied school schedules.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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If drivers keep speeding past Seattle's new school-zone speed cameras at the rate they are now, the city could see as much as $1 million a month in ticket revenues — far beyond what the cameras were expected to bring in.

Between Dec. 10 and 21, in the first two weeks tickets were issued to speeders in four of the city's public-school zones, $189 tickets for 3,263 violations were mailed out.

The largest number of speeding citations, 1,510, were for vehicles photographed near Thurgood Marshall Elementary on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South. There were 881 violations on Greenwood Avenue North near Broadview-Thomson K-8 School; 437 on Fifth Avenue Northeast near Olympic View Elementary; and 435 on Fauntleroy Way Southwest near Gatewood Elementary.

The cameras catch drivers going faster than 20 mph, but only during school hours when flashing beacons are turned on, according to the Seattle Police Department. Two sensors installed under the pavement gauge each vehicle's speed with more accuracy than speed radar, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation.

What if you're going just 21 mph? Any leniency? The response from officers and Police Department adviser Greg Doss has been: "The speed limit is 20 mph." Ticketed drivers, however, are free to challenge their citations in court.

During a warning period in November when no-fine citations were mailed out, it became apparent that large numbers of drivers exceed the speed limit in school zones. Because there were more violators than expected — about 6,000 in a month — the warning period was extended into the first week of December to give the public more time to get used to the speed cameras.

To emphasize that the cameras were installed to increase safety, not swell city revenues, Mayor Mike McGinn said at a late November news conference that any ticket revenue exceeding initial expectations would be spent on public-safety improvements near the schools with the cameras.

"We're not interested in raising money off this," McGinn said at the conference. "We're not going to use it just to support the general fund. We'll put it right back into safety around our schools."

According to McGinn spokesman Aaron Pickus, the city had expected to add about $800,000 in ticket revenue to the city budget for 2013. But the city has not officially set a revenue threshold beyond which any additional money would go to public-safety projects, he said.

Wyeth Jessee, principal of Broadview-Thomson K-8 School, said the public-safety improvements around his school would be more than welcome.

"Many of the roads in the north end of the city don't have sidewalks, including parts of Greenwood Avenue," Jessee said. "Some of the road signs and lights are dated."

Pickus said he did not know whether adding traffic cameras could be considered part of the promised safety improvements. The city's budget process will later establish specifically how the money will be spent.

At current school-zone speeding rates, about $1.2 million in tickets would be mailed out during a full school month — one with no vacations or holidays.

But, ultimately, the mayor's office expects, the most the city will garner in a year will be $2 million to $4 million if tickets continue to be mailed out at the current rate.

That's because some of the money — $38,000 a month — will go to Scottsdale, Ariz.-based American Traffic Solutions for renting and operating the camera equipment, the mayor's office says.

Some of the tickets would also be decreased from $189 in mitigation negotiations, Pickus said.

That's what one West Seattle driver, Jeff V., who asked that his surname not be published, used after he was caught speeding near Gatewood Elementary by a speed-camera van parked there before the traffic cameras were installed. He asked for mitigation via mail, and the fine was reduced to $100.

"The citation was given after school had started and no children were present," he said. "So the $189 punishment didn't really seem representative of the offense, especially in the first week of school when I'm just learning that day the speed is different than it had been all summer."

He wishes now he'd considered something a work colleague said he's done at least five times with traffic-camera citations. Because state law prohibits traffic cameras from photographing drivers, someone challenging the ticket can assert that no one can prove who was behind the wheel and get out of the ticket without paying anything, the man said.

People mailed a ticket can fill out and sign an affidavit form stating, under penalty of perjury, that they were not driving the car at the time of the citation. There's an area on the form to fill in the name of who was driving so the fine can be transferred, but if it's left blank the fine is dropped, according to Doss.

Jeff V. is avoiding tickets from school-zone traffic cameras by adjusting his driving routes.

"I've used a side street since — looks like many others are doing that as well," he said.

The mayor's office still has faith people can try another strategy — just drive the speed limit. The hope is that as more people talk about the cameras and their citations, more people will start changing their behavior, Pickus said.

According to American Traffic Solutions, that's been the overall trend in other Washington cities with school-zone speed cameras: Bellevue, Renton, Lake Forest Park, Lynnwood, Federal Way, Issaquah, Des Moines and Longview.

Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or avaughn@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.

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