Cheers and jeers for new traffic cameras

Our traffic cameras have kind of been hot news in recent months. We’ve brought many new cameras online along I-5 in Tacoma and Everett, and announced many more will go live later this year near Bellingham. While it’s exciting news in many respects, we’ve also received a fair amount of criticism.

People wonder where we’re getting the money for all these cameras, and want to know how we can justify spending it this way during such hard economic times.

The most basic and simple response to part about where the money comes from is that there are state and federal gas taxes that generate revenue every day specifically for transportation improvements. But that’s probably not answer you’re looking for. The real story is a little more complicated.

If we step back for a moment and take a big-picture look at our highway improvements, we have to realize that we can’t build our way out of congestion. It’s just not financially feasible on a number of fronts. It’s unaffordable from a real estate perspective, environmental perspective, construction perspective, and even a long-term maintenance perspective - especially when our budget is declining just like everyone else’s.

Knowing that we can’t afford to build our way out of congestion, we have to ask ourselves, “What can we do to make better use of the existing roads and lanes we already have?” One of the strategies we believe that has some serious merit is making better use of information technology. That’s where the cameras come in.

These cameras are vital to us, to the State Patrol troopers who respond to collisions, and to the traffic reporters who report what’s happening on the roads every day.

They give our maintenance crews, fire departments and law enforcement personnel the tools they need to respond to incidents as quickly and efficiently as possible. We can better coordinate our response and get the roadway open faster.

The cameras also keep drivers informed so they can avoid delays. Drivers can check the cameras and travel times to get a much clearer picture of how I-5 is looking before they leave their homes or offices.

Traffic cameras are just the tip of the iceberg, too. They’re part of a much greater, more expansive network and plan to bring better, more reliable travel information to drivers.

Yes, the traffic technology is expensive, but it costs a mere fraction of what we would spend to try and build our way out of congestion. Traffic cameras are just one way we’re using our existing highway infrastructure more effectively and efficiently.