Seattle

Seattle may soon be able to install automated traffic cameras to ticket drivers blocking bus-only lanes and crosswalks.

The state Legislature approved a bill in the final days of its scheduled session this week to allow the cameras for limited new uses. The bill, HB 1793, now heads to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature.

Blocking crosswalks and bus lanes is already illegal, but Seattle police say using officers to enforce those rules is tough during busy commuting hours because there's often nowhere for cars to pull over.

"Downtown Seattle is the most congested place in our state," said Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, who sponsored the bill. "If we are going to protect safety, both of drivers and pedestrians, as well as the mobility of people relying on transit ... we need the ability to enforce our existing traffic safety laws."

The bill would allow a pilot program for the new cameras, to run through mid-2023. Seattle could use the cameras to detect drivers who stop in an intersection or crosswalk, drive in a transit-only lane or stop or travel in a restricted lane.

The cameras would be allowed in limited locations in and near downtown and on arterials that connect to certain roads into downtown. That would include the West Seattle Bridge, Aurora Avenue and Avalon Way, Fitzgibbon said. Cameras for enforcement of crosswalks and intersections will only be allowed at 20 intersections "where the city would most like to address safety concerns," according to the bill.

The Seattle Department of Transportation has not yet indicated where it would like to put the new cameras.

Mayor Jenny Durkan's office and the Seattle Police Department supported the bill, along with transportation groups and advocates for people with disabilities like the group Rooted in Rights. The organization produced an eye-opening video about the dangers posed to people who use wheelchairs when drivers block crosswalks and curb ramps.

"Everyone should be able to access our streets and sidewalks, especially those of us who rely on walking, rolling and buses to get where we need to go," said Rooted in Rights Program Director Anna Zivarts in an emailed statement.

Under the pilot program allowed by the bill, drivers would get warnings at first, through the end of 2020. Tickets could begin in January 2021 and could not be higher than $75. (Today, getting caught for the same offenses by an officer can result in a $136 ticket.)

The revenue from the tickets is restricted, too. After the cost of installing and operating the cameras, the city would have to return half of the money to the state. The portion the city keeps must be used "for improvements to transportation that support equitable access and mobility for persons with disabilities."

Seattle already uses automated cameras to ticket people running red lights or speeding in school zones. Similar, but slightly different, camera enforcement programs are in place in San Francisco and New York.

Votes on the bill during the legislative session largely split along party lines with most Democrats in favor and Republicans warning of the effects on visitors to Seattle.

"I've been there," said Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, about getting stuck in an intersection or crosswalk. "I've tried to turn a corner seeing the traffic move [and] well, it only moved 3 feet and you've committed to making that turn."

Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, who voted no, said she hadn't seen enough evidence the cameras would improve safety. "I was not convinced yet," she said.

Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said it will help address Seattle's "unique transportation and traffic challenges."

A spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee said the bill would go through a review process common with all legislation before a decision is made about whether he will sign it. Fitzgibbon said he has spoken to Inslee's staff and they are supportive.

Under the program outlined in the bill, if a bus driver gets a warning or ticket under the program while driving a public bus, the transit agency cannot take disciplinary action against the employee.

The city will have to report to the state on where it puts the cameras, how many tickets it issues and whether there are disproportionate impacts.

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