As photo radar revenues decline, council to decide how to pick up the costs

Edmonton's traffic safety automated enforcement reserve is facing a projected deficit as photo radar revenues decline, says Jessica Lamarre, director of the city's Safe Mobility Strategy.

That means city council will have to make some difficult decisions this year about how to fund what photo radar tickets pay for, namely the city's Vision Zero program, police traffic services, and capital projects like school safety and safe crossings.

In 2020, the city brought in $49.5 million in automated enforcement revenue, of which it spent $46.3 million. Just over $22 million went to the Edmonton Police Service, $15.8 million helped run Vision Zero, $2.9 million was dedicated to the Community Facility Partner Capital Grant Program, and $5.3 million went to capital projects.

That amount is down from 2019, which saw $56.8 million in revenue go to the city from photo radar, but it's not as low as the $29.1 million that's projected for 2021 (which is what's expected to be collected long-term based on actual issued fines last year).

Lamarre said her team plans to discuss the deficit with council in May — an early conversation that will help inform budget deliberations at the end of the year.

"They're going to have to think about their different funding mechanisms for the work and how they want to prioritize it — whether that's changing who receives funding from the reserve, or what kinds of things receive funding," Lamarre explained. "Some of it may need to come from the tax levy instead of from the reserve itself, or they may not want to continue some work."

One area where council may look to reduce spending is in the portion of the reserve funding that goes to police. Over the past four years, the EPS has received $22.3 million from the reserve each year (which Lamarre said is built into the police funding formula). That number doesn't change as revenues fluctuate over the budget cycle, but it could be up for debate as council decides how to tackle this challenge.

Lamarre's team could also be at risk, but she said she isn't too concerned as council seems "very committed and passionate to Vision Zero and Safe Mobility."

She added that it's important that the work her team is responsible for continues to grow, so it can update infrastructure as well as the way that the city's mobility network operates to protect all modes of transportation.

"We obviously need to be thinking about a shift from a city that was very much built with vehicles in mind to a city that's built for people," she said.

A parked, yellow, photo radar vehicle marked DRIVE SAFE, flying an orange and yellow caution flag

A City of Edmonton automated enforcement vehicle on 32 Avenue at 103 Street. (City of Edmonton)

There are several reasons why photo radar enforcement revenue has been declining over the past few years, Lamarre told Taproot.

The first key factor is the percentage of revenue that goes to the province. In April 2020, the provincial retention rate was increased from 26.67% to 40%, and the victim surcharge rate was increased from 15% to 20%.

That means about half of the revenue from automated enforcement is going to the province, and the city's share from total issued fines dropped by almost 14% in 2021. Lamarre says that impact alone accounts for a reduction of about $9 million to $10 million per year.

Wrapping photo radar vehicles so that they are highly visible (which the province is mandating for other municipalities from December onward) has also had an impact, as well as the province's moratorium on new locations and equipment, which is in place until December 2022.

"When we can only work within the existing (sites) ... people get used to where enforcement is set up. If you're not moving those locations into places where you're seeing emerging safety issues, then year over a year, your violation rates continue to decline because people get used to them," Lamarre said.

COVID-19 has also played a role. With traffic volumes down substantially, there was also a decline in the number of violations; a factor that Lamarre said is overall a good thing, although it's uncertain how it will change as the city opens back up.

Edmonton is also preparing to usher in a series of provincially mandated changes to photo radar usage in April, June, and December of this year. But Lamarre said those likely won't have too much of an impact on revenue, especially because the biggest change that affects Edmonton costs more to operate than the revenue it brings in.

"The very big one I think that most people noticed was that we're not allowed to have automated enforcement on roads with a 40 km/h speed limit anymore," Lamarre said, adding that those sites typically have lower traffic volumes.

"That's where we most often get asked to have them. The public is often looking for automated enforcement in their community ... because they're concerned about speeds of vehicles."

The city is in the process of evaluating all the automated enforcement sites that it currently operates, and making sure that they're still valid under the new criteria. But it expects that the province will re-approve the majority of its sites.

"As of right now, it looks like 99% of our sites that are not 40 km/h speed limits are eligible to continue," Lamarre said.