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Portland Officials Begged State Lawmakers for Authority to Erect New Speed Cameras. They Installed Them Very Slowly.

Slowing drivers down could reduce traffic deaths by 25 percent. Why isn't it the city's first priority?

On Nov. 20, the activist group Families for Safe Streets placed 400 pairs of shoes in a semicircle near the Morrison Bridge—one pair for each person who has died on Oregon roads in 2016.

In fact, through Nov. 8, state figures show 410 people have died in crashes on Oregon roads this year, more than one per day at a rate 12 percent ahead of last year.

Of that total, 36 people have died in Portland crashes, a figure on pace to eclipse last year's total of 37, the highest in a decade. Ten of those deaths were of people walking across the street.

City officials say they are doing everything they can to reduce the carnage on Portland's streets, using an ambitious traffic safety strategy known as "Vision Zero."

But a state budget report released last week shows they've failed to take a simple step: installing speed-detection cameras designed to slow drivers down.

Last year, Portland lobbied the state for the authority to install 20 such cameras. The city received the green light in July. Yet 16 months later, workers have installed only a pair of cameras at one location.

"It shows that PBOT is not making it a priority to lead with their deeds," says Mark Ginsberg, a lawyer who chaired the city's bicycle advisory committee. "It's just words. We know the cameras work."

Last week, the state's economic forecast called out the city's failure.

The report highlighted a significant shortfall—$14 million, or about a quarter of expected receipts—in the amount of money collected from the new, highly touted Portland speed cameras. (The state is interested because its court system gets the first $60 of every $160 ticket issued by the new cameras.)

"The [budget] reduction is due to lower than expected revenues from photo radar traffic enforcement in the City of Portland," the report said. "To date, just one of the proposed four sets of cameras have been installed. And the one location is issuing fewer tickets than expected as well."

The city is now more than eight months behind on its installation schedule, despite telling state officials last year that speeding drivers were creating an emergency on Portland streets.

In 2015, the city of Portland sought legislative approval to expand the use of electronic traffic cameras. Previously, the city used red-light cameras and mobile police vans that alerted motorists of their speed. But those vans had to be manned, and moved every four hours.

City officials needed a new law to site speed-limiting cameras in permanent locations, where they would slow motorists and generate tickets for speeders.

House Bill 2621 was the Portland Bureau of Transportation's top legislative priority in 2015. It was part of Vision Zero, PBOT's plan to eliminate traffic deaths in Portland by 2025.

In legislative testimony, city lobbyist Elizabeth Edwards shared some impressive stats: National figures showed that fixed speed cameras reduced crashes by 20 to 25 percent, and she said PBOT expected new cameras to "prevent roughly 1,800 injury and 495 serious injury crashes and save 16 lives over the [nine-year] pilot period."

The city also shared its timetable for installing the initial cameras in a Legislative Revenue Office report: two cameras each in January, April, July and October 2016.

The bill won approval and Gov. Kate Brown signed it into law on July 20, 2015.

"It was a huge accomplishment to get that bill passed," says PBOT spokesman Dylan Rivera. "There were a lot of people who objected to it."

In theory, the city could have installed cameras almost immediately.

PBOT knew where crashes were happening—the city presented information to lawmakers about 10 high-frequency corridors where more than half the city's fatal accidents happened.

And more than 100 other cities, including Seattle, Chicago and Washington, D.C., already had fixed speed cameras at work, so there was no need to reinvent the wheel.

But despite the increasing body count, the city's rhetoric around Vision Zero, and the relative ease of installing proven technology, nothing happened for more than a year—and the installation schedule now calls for new intersections to get cameras every six months rather than every three.

The slow rollout was predicted by one observer. An audit of the city's red light camera program in July 2015 predicted the fixed-camera program would be challenging.

"This ambitious plan will require a level of coordination between police and transportation that we did not find evidence of while conducting this audit," the document says.

State Rep. Jeff Reardon (D-Portland), chief sponsor of PBOT's bill, says the pace of the rollout doesn't match the urgency of the underlying safety problem.

"It does seem inconsistent," Reardon says.

PBOT's Rivera says implementation lagged behind what the city had originally hoped because of two reasons: extensive outreach and education in the areas where cameras were to be placed and the need to coordinate with the Portland Police Bureau, which reviews tickets, and the state court system, which processes traffic fines.

"There was concern from our partners about additional demand on their resources when they are already overwhelmed," Rivera says, noting that the Police Bureau has dozens of unfilled positions. "We're moving as fast as we can."

But unlike other traffic safety devices, such as flashing yellow light beacons installed at crosswalks, speed cameras come with built-in revenue to fund the program.

Camera-generated tickets start at $160 and escalate—and the state court system gets the first $60 of each one, so lawmakers were keenly interested in how much money the new cameras would generate.

PBOT officials have always said the purpose of installing the cameras is safety rather than revenue. And preliminary data show that the one set of cameras the bureau has installed on Southwest Beaverton Hillsdale Highway has reduced speeding at Southwest 39th Avenue near the cameras by about 60 percent.

Yet the other three initial locations—Southeast 122nd Avenue between Powell Boulevard and Foster Road; Northeast Marine Drive; and outer Southeast Division Street—won't be up and running until next year.

"I would love to see the cameras rolled out faster," Reardon says. "I'm trying to be understanding—but it's frustrating."

Clarification: The $60 collected by the state court system is passed on the Criminal Fines Account, not used for court operations.