Some are inconspicuous boxes along the side of the road, accompanied by signs warning of photo enforcement. Others are set up inside vehicles or on portable carts.
For drivers, the first time their presence is noted could be through the mail — a $40 citation with a photo of their license plate.
They’re speed cameras, and they’ve become fixtures along some roadways across Maryland as local jurisdictions have turned to them to catch speeders — and, at least indirectly, stuff their coffers.
But a funny thing has happened during the past few months. As drivers become more aware of the cameras’ presence, the amount of money making its way to city and county bank accounts is dwindling.
For example, Montgomery County, which has run speed cameras since the state authorized the county’s program in 2007, has seen revenue drop from $20.7 million in 2009 to an estimated $12 million in fiscal 2012, according to a briefing given before the County Council’s Public Safety Committee in September.
In Prince George’s County, the number of citations declined between June and September this year by almost 35,000.
Now, some jurisdictions are scrambling to move or add cameras. And supporters are emphasizing the positives associated with the plunge in citations.
“If revenues are declining, that’s a good thing,” said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Chevy Chase, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, which vetted the law in 2009, when it passed. “The main point is to make roads safer. By every measurement that I’ve seen, the law is working.”
Revenue from speed camera violations never was intended to be used as a steady, reliable revenue source for municipalities. The law allowing speed cameras requires that jurisdictions use the money for “public safety,” which can include improvement to roadways and pedestrian access, equipment purchases for police forces, and other public safety programs.
The law gave all local jurisdictions in the state the authority to set up speed cameras inside school zones and highway work zones. Citations of $40 are issued to drivers going more than 12 mph above the speed limit. According to AAA Mid-Atlantic’s 2009 Transportation poll, 72 percent of Marylanders support speed cameras in school zones, and 51 percent support cameras in work zones.
Depending on the local government’s contract with the company operating the cameras, jurisdictions keep anywhere from $20 to $30 of each of those fines.
“It would have been dangerous for local jurisdictions to think that the peak revenue was going to be that way for years to come, and to invest those revenues in that way,” said Frosh. “They might need to rachet back their expectations.”
Each jurisdiction — including the State Highway Administration, Prince George’s, Montgomery and Baltimore counties, as well as Baltimore city and other municipalities throughout the state — is dealing with the decline in citations in its own way. Some are adding cameras or moving them to new locations, although most officials say the changes are being made to get more drivers to slow.
“There has been an argument that local governments are seeing these speed cameras as cash cows or modern-day speed traps,” said Don Kettl, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. “But the more interesting question is how [speed cameras] change drivers’ behavior, and how that affects projected revenue for these local governments.”
Municipalities would only have a problem if they relied on that revenue as a source to fund essential programs, said Judith Davis, mayor of Greenbelt and president of the Maryland Municipal League.
“If a city is wise, they’ll use that as a source for extra programs,” she said.
When Greenbelt decided last year to install its own cameras, city administrators tempered expectations of how much the program would bring in. This month, the cameras go active and start issuing citations. The city’s fiscal 2013 budget estimates about $400,000 in revenue from the citations.
The city, Davis said, had learned from the history of its red-light enforcement program, which now makes just enough money from citations to keep afloat.
“We don’t get much money from that anymore, because people know where those cameras are,” Davis said. “Which is a good thing, because that means they’re following the law.”
But some officials contend that although the speed cameras are changing driver behavior, they’re not making the roads safer.
“We’ve seen a substantial drop in the number of violations,” said Laurel Police Chief Rich McLaughlin. “But we’ve seen an increase in speeding just outside of those [camera-enforced] zones.”
The city has used speed camera revenue — more than $3.4 million in fiscal years 2011 and 2012, according to budget documents — to purchase new vehicles and communication equipment for the police force.
Because drivers in Laurel have become accustomed to tapping the brakes near the city’s stationary cameras, the Laurel Police Department has moved one camera and is in the process of putting in three new speed-monitoring signs that could be equipped with photo enforcement cameras.
“[The new sign] may or may not have a camera in it, but drivers will fear there’s a camera there, and they’ll slow down,” McLaughlin said.
To grow its program, Montgomery County is activating 10 additional cameras this year. Officials expect revenue from the cameras to increase to $13.6 million.
In Prince George’s County, where 72 cameras are rotated among 100 locations, the goal has been to “hit a lot of the areas that are the high-speed spots,” said Maj. Robert Liberati, commander of the automated enforcement section for the Prince George’s County Police Department.
Officials, who have seen the number of citations plummet from 62,224 in June to 27,448 in September, are scanning their records “to see what else is out there, to make the best use of these cameras,” Liberati said.
That might include moving them to new locations where police still are seeing speeders, he said.
As automated speed enforcement programs spread, Kettl said officials and observers will be more focused on how driving behavior changes, because this still is a new application of technology.
“We don’t have a huge amount of experience with how this is going to affect how people drive,” Kettl said.
Local jurisdictions running speed cameras are required to report to the General Assembly on the effectiveness of the programs by December 2013.