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Block the box bill gets new life in Olympia, passes House

A King County Metro bus blocking the box in a Seattle intersection. (MyNorthwest photo)

Seattle is a step closer to lawfully using automated traffic cameras to bust drivers who “block the box” after a bill — HB 1793 — in Olympia got new life.

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Seattle leaders and transit advocates were disappointed last month when Democratic Representative Joe Fitzgibbon’s bill expanding the use of the cameras failed to get a vote before a key deadline. The bill aimed to allow cities, such as Seattle, to use cameras to enforce laws around drivers blocking intersections and crosswalks, or using transit-only lanes. It was presumed dead but some have been fighting to revive it since.

Late Monday night, they got their wish when Fitzgibbon was able to resurrect the bill and get it approved in the House on a 57-41 vote — with changes.

“The changes that we made were to make the traffic safety cameras a two year pilot project,” Fitzbibbon said.

“We’ll have two years for the City of Seattle to deploy these cameras and then report back to the Legislature about how they worked … how they improved mobility, how they improved safety, what level of traffic fine revenue they generated,” he said.

Fitzgibbon said the amendment also changes how the revenue from the violations is used. He stressed that the goal is to ease congestion and keep transit moving – not bring in revenue.

“The amendment also puts half of the traffic revenue from traffic fines into a state highway safety account for use for projects throughout the state that improve safety,” Fitzgibbon said.

“The city of Seattle [has] always been really clear with me that they don’t really care what we do with the money, they just want to be able to enforce the law for these purposes,” he said. “That was where the idea come from to use some of the revenue for the state highway safety fund.”

Republicans didn’t see it that way.

“…they will help as a deterrent is some ways, but more so, I think this is more about the revenue, in a lot of ways, that these cameras are going to generate,” Republican Rep. Andrew Barkis said on the House floor, suggesting some people will end up getting tickets through no fault of their own due the overall traffic challenge of driving through downtown Seattle.

Other Republicans worried this would hit drivers visiting the city the hardest.

“It’s a regressive tax,” said Republican Rep. Jim Walsh.

“It will have the effect of being a regressive tax borne by people driving in Seattle – not from Seattle – who aren’t accustomed to Seattle’s shoddy road conditions,” Walsh said.

Those concerns were not enough to stop the bill from passing, which Fitzgibbon, fellow Democrats and even some Republicans agreed was a necessary move to get traffic moving.

Should the bill get to the governor’s desk, it would allow the expansion of the traffic cameras only in Seattle for the two year pilot – unlike the original version which would have allowed the policy statewide.

This does not just apply to downtown Seattle, however.

“In downtown Seattle, as well as in non-interstate freeways connecting to downtown Seattle, and arterials that connect with those freeways,” Fitzgibbon explained.

“So that means the West Seattle Bridge and SR 99 and arterials that connect to those freeways,” he said. “So in my district [West Seattle] that’s Avalon Way, Fauntleroy Way, DelRidge Way as well as in Northwest Seattle areas that connect with Aurora, those arterials would be covered as well.”

The bill now heads to the Senate where Fitzgibbon feels it has a good chance.

“You know, time is a little bit short because we’ve only got about two weeks left of session so we’re going to have to kick into gear to make sure that it moves over there, but there’s a lot of senators that really understand the importance of this and understand the importance of this specifically to Seattle and to Seattle commuters, so I do think we have a shot over there,” Fitzgibbon said.

Seattle responds to block the box bill

The City of Seattle has supported block the box legislation in Olympia. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said Tuesday that the bill’s passage is an overdue step that will help the city keep moving as congestion is expected to greatly worsen.

“With this law in place, the City of Seattle could do more to expand access to transportation for all users, improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists, ensure more reliable transit, and manage congestion,” Durkan said. “It will also free up resources to allow Seattle Police Department officers to address other public safety needs in our city, and reduce the significant risks they face when enforcing our traffic laws.”

“I am grateful to the broad coalition of  transportation, disability rights and safety advocates as well as business community members who came together to make their voices heard in support of this legislation,” she said. “I thank the House of Representatives for their leadership and I ask our leaders in the Washington State Senate to follow suit and vote to approve this long-overdue legislation.” 

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