Officials in the nation’s capital are in hot water. Their revenue-generating speed cameras are actually working and changing driver behavior but leaving an unexpected budget shortfall. How many municipalities across the country are facing the same the quandary?

Automated enforcement equipment put in place recently on the streets of Washington, D.C. has altered driving behavior but not generated the revenue officials predicted –leaving the city in a hole. The city expected to collect $93.7 million but so far has only collected $26.1 million. If the intention was to slow drivers down or stop them from running red lights, this drop should be good thing. However, officials are panicked over a projected $70 million loss, which is a significant slice of the city’s $6.3 billion budget. Perhaps their real intention was not public safety but wringing new dollars from area residents.

D.C. lawmakers thought they could legislate better driving and make a few bucks along the way. The problem is it appears they didn’t consider behavior would actually change and change so quickly. They assumed that drivers would ignore the cameras and continue to speed or run red lights. They were so sure that they counted the fines as expected revenue to close the budget gap and perhaps even boosted spending. As one city councilor notes, that was the intention all along.

The Washington Post reports:

With less than two days left in the city’s fiscal year, CFO Jeffrey S. DeWitt said in a letter to District officials that revenue from fines and forfeitures may end up more than $70 million under projections if the trends hold — a significant chunk of a $6.3 billion local budget. The bulk of the shortfall comes from fines issued through red-light and speeding cameras, which have been the subject of rancorous public debate as their use has proliferated in recent years.

Doxie McCoy, a spokeswoman for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), said in an e-mail that fewer tickets have been issued this year for a variety of reasons, including delays in deploying some new devices, higher speed limits on some streets and more motorists obeying the law.

“And we don’t view any of this as a bad thing,” McCoy said. “As we’ve said all along: the purpose of automated traffic enforcement is to improve public safety and save lives, not to raise money.”

The news prompted D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) to take his fellow city leaders to task for being too dependent on ticket revenue in balancing the District’s budget.

In a statement, Mendelson said the revenue projections “add to the black eye” around the camera program delivered by a recent D.C. inspector general’s report that suggested it was more about filling city coffers than maintaining public safety.

Speed cameras are already contentious in D.C., but this revenue shortfall demonstrates that they work. The problem for D.C. lawmakers is that public safety was secondary to why they really wanted the equipment: $$$. Instead of cutting their budgets and doing more with less, they devised what they thought would be a good revenue generating plan. It back-fired on them but worked from a public safety perspective.

City and state lawmakers like to legislate away the behavior they want discourage. If they can’t force an individual not to do something they will make it so expensive by disproportionately taxing it, that individuals will stop on their own accord – so called sin taxes. If they’re not directly taxing behavior then they’ll devise new fees and penalties to raise the funds they want. This is case here and in municipalities across the country.

While we are no advocates for speed cameras specifically, it’s good to see efforts that make our streets safer for pedestrians, bikers, and other drivers. Even better when it teaches lawmakers a valuable lesson.