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Federal Way photo ticket debate sizzles over school zone

This sign is posted on 1st Avenue South near Winco. - Andy Hobbs/Federal Way Mirror
This sign is posted on 1st Avenue South near Winco.
— image credit: Andy Hobbs/Federal Way Mirror

The debate continues over Federal Way's traffic enforcement cameras — and how many drivers were wrongly ticketed.

The speed zone near Panther Lake Elementary School on 1st Avenue South has frustrated several drivers who say they received unfair citations.

The blame is aimed at flashing yellow school zone lights. Drivers say the lights failed to flash and warn them about the school zone. When the lights flash, the speed limit is 20 mph. Otherwise, the speed limit is 35 mph.

The Federal Way court has dismissed several photo tickets. The citations failed to depict the flashing yellow lights in the photo and prove they were flashing at the time of the alleged violation.

Federal Way police say the problem was fixed this summer, and that cameras now show the flashing lights in the citations.

On Friday, Carmen DeChabert appeared in Federal Way Municipal Court over a photo ticket near Panther Lake Elementary.

She said she was driving 34 mph in the 35 mph zone. When the lights are flashing, the speed limit is 20 mph in the school zone.

"I didn't see the lights and the lights were not on. I would swear on the Bible they were not flashing," she said, adding that the location of the lights offered insufficient warning of the active school zone.

DeChabert said the judge reduced her ticket from $250 to $125. She said her mistake was checking the box on the ticket for mitigation, instead of selecting the option to contest the ticket.

This week, The Mirror published a letter from resident Matthew Jarvis titled "City ignores malfunctions in photo enforcement."

"Through a series of public record requests," Jarvis wrote in his letter, calling on the city to fix the system. "I have learned that the city does not keep records regarding the maintenance or operation of the flashing yellow lights. Despite the claims being made on each citation, the city was unable to provide documentation showing that the yellow lights must be flashing before tickets can be issued."

Each ticket is reviewed by Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions (ATS) and Federal Way police before being sent to the registered owner of the vehicle.

Readers have responded on The Mirror's Facebook page regarding the letter written by Jarvis.

"Please correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't these cameras operated and maintained by a private company?" posted Tim Drab. "If so, and these flashing lights aren't working, maybe the city ought to recoup the money for time wasted on all these dismissals."

Background info

Federal Way's first four red light photo cameras went active in 2008. Today, there are 14 cameras at 11 locations. Eight cameras capture red light violations, and six cameras target school zone speeders.

A photo ticket can cost between $124 to $250, depending on the violation. In the first six months of 2012, Federal Way generated about $1.2 million in net revenue from the controversial cameras.

Federal Way pays $4,750 per month per intersection to ATS to cover processing. That total cost to the city, per month, is about $53,000.

In 2011, the cameras generated $945,606 in net revenue. So far in 2012, the city reports a net revenue of nearly $1.2 million through June — about $552,000 more than the same year-to-date total from the previous year. One factor for the increase in citations is the school zone cameras.

The photo ticket revenue goes into the city's traffic safety fund.

In July 2010, the city council extended Federal Way’s contract with American Traffic Solutions for enforcement cameras through 2013.

In May 2011, a glitch at ATS resulted in the dismissal of 137 infractions from Federal Way. The glitch involved faulty notification of the alleged violations.

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