Push to Expand Speed Cameras Mired in Albany Politics

A camera mounted outside Public School 124 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is part of a program designed to discourage speeding in school zones in New York City.

Not too long ago, classes at Public School 124 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, were routinely interrupted by the sounds of speeding cars — drivers gunning their engines to try to make the green lights along Fourth Avenue. Then in 2015 came the first speed camera mounted in front of the elementary school.

Today, most of the cars pass by quietly — and slowly.

P.S. 124 is one of 140 schools across New York City that are part of a program to use cameras to catch drivers who exceed the typically 25-mile-per-hour speed limit on city streets. City officials say the cameras have been effective in slowing down traffic around schools, and along with advocates they are mounting a campaign for the state, which controls traffic enforcement rules, to expand the program significantly.

But it is not even clear that the Legislature will vote to continue the existing program, which lawmakers must approve by the end the legislative session next month, let alone approve broadening the enforcement. Proponents argue that more measures need to be taken to make the city’s streets safer — in the first five months of this year, 37 pedestrians were killed by vehicles.

“The effectiveness of speed cameras is as clear as one plus one equaling two,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in an emailed statement. “There’s no room for debate and there’s no time to waste. With a little over a month left in session, it’s time for Albany to do what they know works and renew and expand protection of N.Y.C. students.”

But some critics question the program’s effectiveness, arguing that the cameras have turned some streets into speed traps and cash cows for the city. Between 2014 and 2016, the cameras, which are only used during school hours, resulted in more than $122 million in violations.

During the first month of the program at P.S. 124, the cameras resulted in nearly 250 summonses a day being imposed on drivers whizzing past. About two years after the installation of the cameras, that number had dropped to 54 summonses every day, a nearly 80 percent decline, making it clear that the electronic monitoring was having its intended effect of slowing drivers down.

The results seem to have been borne out citywide, with the number of speeding tickets issued by the cameras plunging on average, by 63 percent and in some areas by as much as 85 percent in the 18-month period since the program began in 2014. Pedestrian, motorist and cyclist injuries in traffic crashes have declined by an annual average of nearly 15 percent between 2014 and 2016 at locations with a camera, transportation department figures show.

One bill in the state Legislature, supported by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, would double the number of schools with cameras to 290 and widen the area that they would cover from the street in front of a school’s entrance to the surrounding streets, up to a quarter-mile radius.

Supporters had wanted cameras added around 700 schools, but compromised on a lower figure after some Republican lawmakers balked. Martin J. Golden, a Republican senator from Brooklyn, agreed to be a sponsor of the legislation after the number was reduced.

“People believe Big Brother is here and they don’t want more cameras and more intrusion into their lives,” Mr. Golden said. “I think we need to be able to have a balance, and I think moving slowly and steadily and getting traffic to a reduced speed and making our communities safer is what we want to do.”

But the fate of the program is still subject to the political gamesmanship in Albany where Senate Republicans have often been unwilling to embrace just about anything championed by Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat. Complicating the situation is the position of Senator Simcha Felder, a Democrat from Brooklyn who wields inordinate power by choosing to caucus with the Republicans and who has balked at supporting the speed camera program because he believes a more important issue involving safety at schools is increasing police presence.

“It’s too early to tell,” Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Republicans, said of the program’s future.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo approved the adoption of the program, but his office would not comment on what he plans to do now. “There are a variety of proposals in the legislature that we would of course review,” said Peter Ajemian, a spokesman for Mr. Cuomo.

For some, the prospect of any cameras at all seems like a strategy designed to make money off unsuspecting drivers. “They always couch it in safety of some kind, but there are a lot of other ways to have streets be safer,” said Shelia Dunn, a spokeswoman for the National Motorists Association, who said better traffic safety education for children could be part of the solution. “There are lots of ways to handle this, rather than trying to make more money.”

Manhattan Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick, a Democrat who has sponsored an Assembly version of the speed camera bill, scoffed at the idea that the measure has anything to do with money. “People say you just want to raise the revenue,” she said. “No, we want to save kids’ lives.”

Debbie Herdan, 48, a nurse-midwife who lives in Kensington, Brooklyn, sends her son to Middle School 51 in Park Slope. She has traveled to Albany to advocate for the bill’s passage and finds resistance to the cameras deeply upsetting. “People find it personally offensive to receive traffic tickets,” Ms. Herdan said. “But this is a public health and safety issue; reducing speed will save lives, and our children are our future.”

To Annabell Burrell, the principal of P.S. 124, there is no debate about the program. In March, not far from P.S. 124, two children were killed and several people were injured when a car plowed into them. In 2004, two fifth-grade boys were struck by a truck and killed as they walked home from the school.

“If you’re really serious about protecting children in schools, this needs to be happening everywhere that there is a school,” Ms. Burrell said. “Why wouldn’t you do this?”

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