Dan McGowan

RI lawmakers may change speed camera law

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said Thursday he is working to amend the state law that let Providence install speed cameras in neighborhoods across the city, with the goal of lowering the $95 fine.

State lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the Automated School-Zone-Speed-Enforcement System Act in 2016 to allow municipalities to install the cameras within a quarter-mile of any type of school. The House vote was 54-16, with Mattiello among those voting in favor. The city announced plans to deploy the cameras last summer, but they didn't start generating tickets until January.

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Between Jan. 16 and March 7, the city generated more than 17,000 violations for drivers traveling at least 11 miles per hour over the speed limit at five locations. Six additional cameras will begin catching speeders on March 19. The city's contract with private vendor Conduent State and Local Solutions Inc. allows for up to 15 cameras.

The large quantity of tickets caught city leaders off guard and led several members of the General Assembly to call for changes to the state legislation. State Rep. Anthony Giarrusso, an East Greenwich Republican, was the first lawmaker to call for a ban on traffic cameras, calling them a "money grab."

Now the Democrats are jumping on board. North Kingstown Rep. Robert Craven told The Providence Journal this week that Providence was "abusing" the law's intended purpose, although he offered little evidence other than the total number of tickets.

In a statement, Mattiello said he is working with Craven to amend the bill to "provide warnings before tickets are issued and to reduce the fines." (The $95 ticket is currently the minimum amount anyone caught speeding in Rhode Island can be fined.)

Mattiello said he'd like to require at least two warnings before a full-priced ticket is issued, but said the legislative language has not been finalized.

"I have mixed feelings about the school-zone speed cameras," Mattiello said. "Obviously, too many tickets have been given out. However, I have a real concern about the safety of children and these drivers are exceeding the speed limit by at least 11 miles per hour near neighborhood schools."

Greg Pare, a spokesperson for Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, said the North Providence Democrat is also "concerned with the exceptionally high volume of tickets issued." Pare said Ruggerio is open to considering legislation on the issue.

Josh Block, a spokesperson for Gov. Gina Raimondo, said the governor "is confident that municipalities and the legislature will work together to determine what, if any, amendments to existing state law are necessary." Raimondo allowed the speed camera bill to become law without her signature in 2016.

Conduent's State House lobbyist is Tony Simon, a well-known political operative who served as chief of staff to Mayor Jorge Elorza between January 2015 and August 2016. Simon is not registered to lobby at City Hall, but he did attend a Council Finance Committee hearing on the proposed cameras last July. (He did not testify.) Conduent has had a contract with Providence for many years because it also oversees the city's red-light camera program.

The Elorza administration has largely dismissed criticism over the program, although it did agree to allow a two-week warning period for the six new cameras. The city's contract with Conduent only required a warning period for the original five cameras.

"We've received numerous calls on both sides of the issue," Victor Morente, the mayor's press secretary, said in an email. "Some folks are upset and some are thankful for the speed cameras. While the city remains committed to the cameras as a way to keep our kids safe, the city is open to reasonable changes to the state law." Those changes could include a lower fee for those caught speeding, he said.

City Council President David Salvatore said Thursday he fully supports the speed cameras as a traffic-calming measure, but doesn't want the program to be "construed as a money-making operation for the city."

"With that in mind, I want to consider reducing the fines imposed so that this initiative is not unduly burdensome on residents," Salvatore said.."I have also asked our Department of Public Works to consider increasing signage around speed cameras to ensure that drivers are properly informed of their presence in school zones."

Conduent earns $2,978 per month for each camera and $7.50 per violation processed, meaning it was set up to make more than $100,000 during the first month of the program. The company also receives a $3.50 convenience fee every time a violator uses a credit card to pay a ticket. Speeding drivers had already paid the city $607,600 as of Wednesday.

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Dan McGowan (dmcgowan@wpri.com) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowanSusan Campbell (scampbell@wpri.com) is the Call 12 for Action and Target 12 consumer investigator for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow her on Twitter and on FacebookTed Nesi contributed to this report.

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