By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
FREDERICKSBURG — As politicians threaten to raise gas taxes and tolls to pay for needed highway work, hundreds of millions of dollars are being siphoned off to set speed traps and fund “ticket blitzes,” a motorists’ association charges.
Across Virginia, money-hungry municipalities enforce arbitrarily low speed limits and stage flashy red-light campaigns to nab drivers.
Traffic engineers at the National Motorists Association say the so-called “safety” initiatives are making roads more dangerous.
“Selective enforcement,” a catch-all category in federal highway funding, pays local and state police overtime to wage ticket blitzes by land and air. For fiscal 2011, the state obtained $28.3 million via the program.
“It focuses on roadways with dangerously low speed limits and intersections with dangerously short yellow intervals,” contends Joe Bahen, a Richmond-based representative of the NMA.
The largest grant to Virginia State Police helped fund a two-day Operation Air, Land and Speed on Interstates 81 and 95 last May 22 and 23. The payoff was 5,814 tickets written May 22-23, with 90 percent of the citations for speeding.
Yet there is scant data to prove that the millions spent on selective enforcement is making the roads safer.
Bahen, a public engineer, asserts that the blitzes “actually increase crash rates as they cause some drivers to drive below the prevailing speed of traffic.”
The Department of Motor Vehicles says just 9 percent of accidents in Virginia are caused by drivers exceeding the speed limit. Almost as many crashes are caused by slowing and stopping, or bad behavior such as tailgating.
In fiscal 2010, off-duty state troopers received $875,000 in federally funded overtime pay to conduct six two-day blitzes.
“They wrote approximately 36,000 summonses, mostly at speed traps that have severely under-posted speed limits,” Bahen said.
I-95 speed trap: I can’t go 65
One of the most profitable speed traps is on Interstate 95 north of Richmond, where the speed limit in the Bryan Park section was cut to 55 mph in the 1970s. It has not been reviewed or changed by the Virginia Department of Transportation since federal limits were repealed in 1995.
An independent analysis by the NMA showed this designated “Highway Safety Corridor” could easily and safely accommodate 65 mph traffic. But higher posted speeds would likely yield lower ticket revenues there.
“The return on investment at Bryan Park is huge,” Bahen reports. “The operating expense of a trooper and cruiser is less than $50 per hour. Since virtually all drivers are exceeding the unrealistic 55 mph limit, each trooper can easily write three tickets per hour.”
With fines averaging about $250 per ticket, one officer can gross $750 per hour. And if overtime is involved, the feds’ selective-enforcement fund also covers the added payroll costs.
In 2010, Gov. Bob McDonnell’s “Get Virginia Moving” initiative raised the speed limits on many of the Old Dominion’s rural interstates to 70 mph. NMA research recommends raising speeds on many more state highways now stuck at 55 mph.
While speed limits have been rising nationally, the U.S. road fatality rate is at its lowest point ever.
“Speed limits are inconsistent and dangerous across Virginia. The danger is being compounded by profit-motivated enforcement,” Bahen said.
As for the cost to the taxpayers, he offers, “We are borrowing money from China to fund highway safety projects that make our highways less safe. It’s outrageous.”
McDonnell and Virginia lawmakers reportedly are considering indexing the state’s gas tax to inflation as a way to pump more dollars into highway coffers.
Veronique DeRugy, senior research fellow at the libertarian-leaning Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said the percentage of gas-tax revenues dedicated to road construction and maintenance has been shrinking under the growing weight of “safety” initiatives.
“States are incorrigible spenders. They’re using these so-called safety programs to raise money, and to continue to spend more money,” she said.
Shortening yellow lights for profit … and accidents
Off the highways, Virginia cities are tinkering with the timing of yellow lights.
Except for intersections that are camera-enforced, there is no set time for yellow lights, and Bahen says revenue-seeking local officials have been shortening yellow intervals to cite more red-light runners.
He says the practice “always increases rear-end crash rates.”
News reports earlier this year cited several intersections along West Broad Street in Henrico County as the most crash prone in the region, and NMA found that yellow intervals were 1.3 seconds shorter than the standard duration.
Not coincidentally, Henrico Police is participating in another federally financed ticket blitz, called “National Stop on Red Week,” along West Broad.
Dodging the state’s yellow-light restriction on photo-enforced intersections, the Northern Virginia city of Alexandria reduced the duration of yellow lights at a busy downtown intersection from 4 seconds to 3 seconds — and then installed a red-light camera.
“It is apparent to us that these projects are designed only to raise cash by intentionally exploiting roadways with short yellows,” Bahen concluded.
NHTSA maintains that its selective enforcement program is helping to keep the roads safer.
“The premise is that an individual’s discomfort or fear of being stopped for a traffic safety violation outweighs the desire not to comply with the law,” the agency says.
Not all violators are created equal
Virginia officials say ticket revenues support the state Literary Fund and defray court costs. Last year, the Literary Fund received $68.6 million and the court system kept $73 million.
But Watchdog.org found that at least some of the proceeds from federally funded selective-enforcement campaigns stay in the counties in which the citations were issued.
What’s more, government workers get a pass when they’re caught speeding or running red lights.
Because state code allows municipalities to treat traffic infractions by their workers as a “personnel matter,” most on-the-job government employees are exempt from paying tickets.
In Virginia Beach, which has installed banks of red-light cameras to heighten traffic enforcement, 210 government-owned vehicles were cited for traffic violations.
That’s a tiny percentage of the total tickets issued, and 0 percent of the revenue, because road violations by public workers are “handled administratively” through reprimands. Repeat offenders can face stricter discipline, including time off without pay, officials say. But no public employee on duty is required to pay a traffic ticket — so the citations go unpaid.
Still, Virginia Beach’s traffic department believes that tougher photo enforcement on the streets is at least sending a signal to public employees.
The number of government vehicles violating the city’s traffic laws last year dropped to 54, out of 57,470 total citations. (The figures don’t count the 3,200 emergency vehicles that broke through intersections with lights and sirens blaring.)
Contact Kenric Ward at [email protected] or at (571) 319-9824.
— Edited by John Trump at [email protected]