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What $189 speeding tickets can buy

Gotcha! Traffic cams are moneymaking machines. Credit: Credit: Dave Dugdale/Flickr

Last week, I went downtown to fight a speeding ticket. Or, really, to complain about a speeding ticket, because the city had video of me speeding and I was very unlikely to get it overturned. It was one of those fixed school zone cameras, and it had caught me going 26 miles per hour in a 20 mile per hour zone. The cost? $189.

Now, it’s hard to complain about getting a ticket for speeding in a school zone, since that’s clearly a bad thing to do, but I do question whether the punishment fits the crime. $189 for going 26 mph?

I knew how the trip to downtown would go. I would stand in a couple of long lines, stare at drab government walls and leave feeling demoralized and dissatisfied. At some point I probably would get scolded. A veteran of visiting big city government buildings, I knew I needed to clear a lot of time and bring a good book.

The hearing was in Seattle’s Justice Center, one of the city’s newer government buildings. I passed through the metal detector and immediately saw an area labeled Customer Service with ropes outlining a serpentine queue. I took note because I assumed this would be a place where I would do a lot of my penance. I took the elevator, surprisingly nice, with stainless steels walls and terrazzo floors, up to the second floor where I was to have my hearing. I sat down at a computer terminal where, I was told, I was could actually watch myself committing the infraction.

This is where things got weird.

After a minute of fumbling through my papers to find a video access code, a nearby voice offered help. I had so little expected assistance that I thought she was talking to someone else. The woman, an employee behind a nearby desk, confirmed that she was indeed offering help, and commiserated with me over receiving a raft of court papers with a lot of numbers but not the numbers I needed.

She found my number, and offered to come out from behind her desk to enter it in for me (since the number was so long)! This woman was incredibly nice. She even checked the time, concerned that we might not finish before my hearing started. This seemed odd, because it was 2:03, and my hearing was scheduled for 2:00. Clearly I had another 45 minutes of waiting ahead.

Scarcely had I settled down in a chair when a man appeared in a doorway and called my name. We walked down a long hallway, nice as any corporate headquarters, and into an office with blonde wood chairs and ample southern exposure. He offered me a seat. It turned out he was, in fact, the magistrate.

Judge Chung had a friendly, patient smile. I delivered my rehearsed bit about social justice and the fairness of a $189 ticket for going 26 mph, and we had a short discussion. He smiled serenely and asked if I had been cited for speeding before. I was busted. Last October I got a ticket, at the same location, for going 28 miles per hour.

I asked Judge Chung whether he would sanction a ticket for traveling, say, 22 mph in a 20 mph zone. He explained that 26 mph is usually the lowest speed for which he sees tickets being issued. I could see that I was getting nowhere, so we wrapped it up. He agreed to drop my fee to $100. I walked out of the courtroom at 2:09 p.m.

On my way out, I started to take note of just how nice the building and its interior are. In fact, the Seattle Justice Center is more like a Four Seasons hotel than a government building. There’s artwork on the walls, cherry wood ceilings, a green roof terrace and impressive views (through double-paned glass) of sparkling Elliott Bay.

The directory called my attention to an Attorney Convenience Center on the 11th floor. I pushed 11, thinking that there might be espressos or maybe a gym that I could look into joining. The Center required a key card for entry, but I peeked into a nearby staff room, which looked like Don Draper’s office when his career was flourishing. Floor-to-ceiling views of the Duwamish where it meets Elliott Bay, and of glittery City Hall, which was built at roughly the same time as the Justice Center. The two buildings cost $259 million in the early 2000s. The city had to borrow the money.

And then I realized what those $189 speeding tickets were paying for.

The Seattle Times recently reported that in the past 18 months 70,000 motorists like me have received speeding infractions from fixed school zone cameras. Those tickets generated $6.9 million last year, far more than expected. City officials insist they’re not issuing tickets for the money; that it’s all about safety. (And, to be clear, in fact, the City Council passed a measure last year dedicating all the revenue from the tickets to traffic and pedestrian-safety improvements near schools.)

Don’t get me wrong. I love excellent customer service, uplifting art and beautiful views. Visiting  the Justice Center was the best trip to a government building I’ve ever had.

I’m just not sure I like how much it costs.

This story has been updated since it first appeared to note the City Council's passage of a measure dedicating revenue from the tickets to safety improvements.  

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