The new year brings new fines for Seattle motorists, if they enter certain bus lanes or clog four problem intersections.

The Seattle Department of Transportation has chosen eight locations to install traffic enforcement cameras, which will read license plates. Starting in early January, drivers will be mailed a warning the first time, and fined $75 for repeat violations.

“It is illegal for drivers to enter an intersection unless they have a clear path to make it all the way through,” SDOT warned in an announcement.

Safety advocates, notably Disability Rights Washington, pushed for the new program. They emphasize that “blocking the box” endangers crosswalk users, especially people who are blind or in wheelchairs.

And it obstructs other drivers from moving on a green light, so they start cramming into the intersections during yellow and red phases too.

Bus-lane and intersection cameras were authorized by the state Legislature in 2020, as a pilot program until July 2023, limited to 20 sites at downtown, South Lake Union and major connecting roads.

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Revenues are unknown, but a City Council analyst’s note in fall 2020 estimated an operating cost of $48,000 per year per camera, and a projected $2.2 million first-year income to fund safety programs, if 10 cameras were activated.

Opponents Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, and Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, issued a statement last month objecting that otherwise law-abiding drivers will be “caught off guard” by heavy city backups, and get stuck with surprise fines.

“Seattle drivers will get used to this very quickly, but people who live outside the city are unlikely to even know such a law exists,” Van De Wege said. On the other hand, conventional red-light enforcement cameras operate across Washington state, and can detect some kinds of box-blocking maneuvers.

The new fine notices, as with other Seattle enforcement cameras, will be mailed by the Seattle Police Department after an officer reviews the footage.

Bus-lane cameras were first applied to the lower Spokane Street swing bridge to West Seattle, in January 2021. The previous March, SDOT rationed access to the low bridge after runaway cracks closed the seven-lane highrise bridge. Except overnight hours, access is restricted to transit, vanpools, trucks, government vehicles and vehicle owners holding permits, such as delivery businesses, longshore workers or on-call medical staff. By designating the low bridge as bus lanes, SDOT justified enforcement cameras.

West Seattle drivers commonly grumble about being forced to detour as far as 5 miles, when the low bridge often appears roomy. Elsewhere, commuters lament they might never make it through Mercer Street, unless they risk getting caught red-handed.

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At Spokane Street, the city mailed 13,374 of the $75 fine notices during June 2021, the West Seattle Blog reported. More recently, police have tried spot patrols to catch drivers who obscure their license plates.

Half of net citation income stays with the city, to pay for accessible pedestrian signals that beep, talk or vibrate. The other half is directed by law to the state’s walk-bike-roll safety programs.

Red-light cameras exist throughout Washington state. In Seattle, they generated 38,140 citations and $3.4 million in collected fines during 2019, and the penalty is $139 per violation. The city also has school-zone enforcement cameras, that generated 53,811 citations that year and $9.4 million citation payments. The fine is $237 for exceeding 20 mph during hours when yellow lights flash.

Cameras support a City Council aspiration to reduce police encounters, on grounds they can introduce racial bias and risks of violent escalation. In the past, traffic officers occasionally converged on gridlocked Mercer Street, but usually ignored it. Police officials said there’s nowhere to pull cars over without making congestion worse.

Besides freeing police for other matters, the camera network “also makes enforcement more consistent, objective and fair,” SDOT wrote. A poll of voters, for Northwest Progressive Institute and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, found 73% support to shifting traffic enforcement from police to SDOT.

“The primary way we’d like to keep people safe is through infrastructure changes,” said Gordon Padelford, Greenways executive director.

SDOT didn’t choose Mercer Street for new cameras because it would have required extra time to install new poles, and the city’s pilot project expires soon in mid-2023, said spokesperson Ethan Bergerson. Mercer will be considered if the state law and city program are extended, he said.

New traffic cameras will be at:

  • Aurora Avenue North at Galer Street (bus lane)
  • Third Avenue at James Street (bus lane)
  • First Avenue at Columbia Street (bus lane)
  • Third Avenue and Stewart Street (bus lane)
  • Fourth Avenue at Battery Street (intersection)
  • Fourth Avenue at Jackson Street (intersection)
  • Westlake Avenue North at Valley/Roy Streets (intersection)
  • Fifth Avenue at Olive Way (bus lane and intersection)
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A ferry passes the Seattle skyline during sunset on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021.  218504

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