Gov. Janet Napolitano wants to turn a new statewide photo speed enforcement initiative into a major cash cow for Arizona.
She expects speeders nabbed by photo enforcement will put $90 million a year in the state’s coffers, helping to offset a projected 2008-09 state budget deficit of $1.3 billion, by the governor’s reckoning, or $1.7 billion, according to the Legislature.
Napolitano’s proposal follows a successful test of photo enforcement on the Loop 101 Pima Freeway in Scottsdale, where the equipment slowed traffic, won public support and defied predictions flashing cameras would trigger crashes.
Still, relying on photo enforcement for its revenue flies in the face of how police have regarded such technology for more than a decade.
Critics have long said cities are motivated to use photo radar to make money — not to improve safety. Cities insist they try to break even, and years of data shows they typically do that or even lose money.
Napolitano told the Tribune editorial board she’s interested in safety — but that there’s nothing wrong with making money, too.
“To me it is still fundamentally a safety issue,” she said.
Some states issue citations to the driver of a vehicle regardless of who is driving, Napolitano said, adding she would advocate that approach if she were only interested in money. But Arizona will only cite a driver whose photograph matches that of the vehicle’s owner, which reduces the number of tickets issued.
Would Napolitano’s plan undermine the safety message when so much money is at stake?
“You hit the nail on the head,” said Linda Gorman, a spokeswoman for AAA Arizona. “That is a big concern of AAA.”
The organization supports photo enforcement on the condition any profits go directly to traffic safety measures. She’s heard the cash cow accusations in the past, but said the Loop 101 experiment helped show the public that photo enforcement isn’t about money.
“It’s an effort to keep streets safe, but it should not be used to balance the budget,” Gorman said.
Police wouldn’t criticize the governor’s plan but said they’ve designed programs that break even to avoid the perception they’re only after the money.
“Our focus is safety and we don’t want to water down the message that our priority is the safety of our residents and those that frequent Tempe,” police Sgt. Mike Horn said.
He noted the city has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year recently on photo enforcement.
One member of Arizona’s House Transportation Committee said he had no problem with the governor’s plan.
“If you are able to raise money from people who are breaking the law, just like with a parking ticket, I don’t know why that’s not a reasonable way to raise revenues,” said Rep. Steve Farley, D-Tucson.
Drivers know when they’re speeding and they’ll know the cameras will be in place to catch them, Farley said, so law-abiding drivers won’t get fined while the state makes more money.
Critics would blast the program as a boondoggle if it lost money, he said. “I don’t see how this is a major problem,” Farley said. “In fact, it’s government running itself like a business.”