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Public-input session on use of traffic-camera revenue

Monday night, April 4, at 6:30 pm (corrected) the City will conduct a public meeting for input on the use of traffic camera revenue. The meeting is at the Civic Center social room. I’ll be there, and I will be interested to hear what residents have to say. I’ve already shared some of my views on this blog, but it’s time to say some more.

Council members have already heard from citizens with opinions on the use of this money. Many support the idea of traffic safety improvements, but I have also heard from people who want the City to use this money to pay down the city’s debt, as well as folks who support other specific expenditures.

Regarding the idea of paying down the debt, the idea is appealing. In effect, we’ve already done some of that. The first year’s revenues from the traffic cameras (that is, revenues for fiscal 2010) totaled about $950,000 and were applied to improving the city’s financial position by increasing cash reserves. This did not directly reduce the existing city debt, but it avoids some additional borrowing, provides a cushion against future emergencies, and helps the city maintain a good credit rating that reduces the cost of borrowing. There are good reasons not to use additional camera revenue to pay down city debt. First, I have learned that on most municipal debt obligations, it is not possible to prepay principal. (This has to do with the way the borrowing is structured.) Also, the amount of money generated by the traffic cameras (I expect that it will be about $600,000 this year) is unfortunately very small in comparison to the total city debt (at the end of fiscal 2010, this was about $107 million for schools and city government, plus about $61 million for electric/water/wastewater facilities) and even the city’s annual expenditure (over $7 million) for debt service. Finally,  interest rates on the debt are very low right now, so prepaying debt wouldn’t save us much in the way of future interest.

I think it is best to use this money to addresscity needs that might not otherwise be addressed — through projects that will have a noticeable positive impact on people’s lives and well-being. Furthermore, since Oak Ridge should not depend on the camera revenue being available forever (because it is possible that the cameras will be eliminated, and even if they are retained, it is expected that the level of violations will decrease), the money should be used for one-time purposes instead of continuing programs. And, as I discussed in my earlier blog comments, because the stated purpose of the cameras is safety, the first priority for use of this money should be safety improvements. (Some of my fellow Council members pledged to do this back when the camera contract was approved.)

Some residents have suggested building an overhead walkway to connect the high school and civic center. This would be a safety improvement that would address a long-time city need. City staff did recommend an overhead walkway due to several factors. Not only would it be extremely expensive (due in part to the requirement to provide either elevators or long wheelchair ramps on both ends), but experience elsewhere indicates that when there is a long stairway or ramp to get to a pedestrian overpass, people often decide to take their chances by jaywalking instead of using the overpass. Instead, staff has recommended installing a “pedestrian signal” (i.e., stoplight with walk light) at the crosswalk between Oak Ridge High School and the Oak Ridge Civic Center. This should be an effective (and cost-effective) way of achieving the desired results from the overhead walkway  — and I have a hunch that this stoplight could eliminate the need for the speed camera and crossing guards currently deployed at this location. As stated earlier, it’s my top priority for spending traffic camera money — and I think it would have a big positive impact on both our quality of life and newcomers’ perceptions of the city.

Other safety-related proposals I’ve heard from residents include adding more  school resource officers  and funding driver’s education at the high school. Neither of these ideas fits the test of being a one-time expenditure — once started, people would expect the funding to continue in the future (even if the camera money went away).

Besides the crossing at the high school, there are other traffic/pedestrian safety-related projects on the staff’s list that I believe address important city needs — and possibly could help ameliorate some of the situations that led to installation of the cameras:

  • Pedestrian safety improvements at the intersection of Oak Ridge Turnpike (SR 95) and Illinois Avenue (SR 62).
  • A northbound left-turn signal (traffic-activated) on Illinois Avenue at the intersection of Robertsville Road
  • A walk light and pedestrian crosswalk at the intersection of Oak Ridge Turnpike with Tyler and Administration Roads.

These projects likely would absorb this year’s camera money, which is the focus of the resolution that is currently up for Council consideration. Other initiatives a little bit farther down the staff priority list are also worthwhile, but I don’t necessarily agree with all of their priorities. Some additional initiatives that I think are particularly worth pursuing (or at least considering) are:

  • Create a physical barrier between traffic and the bike-ped trail where the Emory Valley Greenway is on the shoulder of Emory Valley Road. It’s not clear what arrangement will work best there, but something needs to be done to protect bicyclists from traffic — and to ensure that drivers don’t have to swerve to avoid young bicyclists who veer into the traffic lane.
  • Add a walk light and pedestrian signal at the intersection of Oak Ridge Turnpike with New York Avenue and Lafayette Drive. There are plenty of good reasons for people to try to walk across the Turnpike there (walking to work or walking from a workplace to a lunch spot, for example), but there is no way for pedestrians to request that the light change to red on the Turnpike to allow crossing (not a problem when traffic is heavy, but a real issue at some hours), and it’s not clear that the red light duration is adequate for pedestrians to cross.
  • Create a protected pedestrian crossing of Melton Lake Drive near Emory Valley Road, where the Emory Valley Greenway crosses. This is a high-volume crossing point where a safer crossing would have a positive impact on residents and visitors. However, there is a vision for a roundabout there, and I would want to know that a new pedestrian crossing should be able to remain after the roundabout is installed.
  • Install “humped” crosswalks at locations on local streets, particularly in residential neighborhoods and near schools, where there is an identified need to get traffic to slow down. I can think of a few candidate spots in Woodland and and on Outer and West Outer Drives.
  • Acquire new reflective street signage that federal regulations will require cities to install over the next few years. The increased reflectivity of the new signs will enhance safety, and using traffic camera money for the signs would save money that otherwise would  come from property taxes — or additional city debt.

Those are relatively small projects. Some big-ticket items that I think we should consider in the future are:

  • Two roundabouts: One at the Melton Lake Drive and Emory Valley Road intersection and another at “Malfunction Junction” where Pennsylvania, Providence, North Tulane, and East Pasadena come together.
  • “Intelligent transportation systems” controls for stoplights on Illinois Avenue (and possibly later on Oak Ridge Turnpike) to ensure smoother traffic  flow. This would have several types of benefits. It’s easy to see how residents and visitors would appreciate improved traffic flow through town  — as would local businesses that may lose prospective customers who stay away to avoid being delayed by frequent stoplights.  I also see it as a safety measure — because a smoother passage through the stoplights would reduce the driver frustration that can tempt drivers to speed or run red lights. Finally, reducing stop-and-go driving would have environmental benefits by reducing emissions of tailpipe pollutants and greenhouse gases.

It will be helpful for staff and City Council to hear from residents and business owners (Monday night and at other times) about these and other possible priorities — plus other ideas that people might have.

If the cameras are around for more than a couple of years, and if people continue to get ticketed for speeding and  running red lights, there likely will be an opportunity to consider other uses for the revenue (and the suggestions I’ve heard range from preschool to senior center, plus all life stages in between), but for now I see opportunities for traffic-safety enhancements that I think will noticeably improve the quality of life in Oak Ridge for many years to come.

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