Update: On Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a new bill to preserve and expand the use of speed cameras near schools. The new law, which was to be enacted in time to coincide with the first day of school, allows the city to expand the use of speed cameras to an addition 150 schools, increasing the total number of school zones protected to 290.
“The clock has been ticking, and the State Senate has refused to provide speed cameras to protect the lives of our school children,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio in a statement. “We refuse to let their politics endanger our children, so the City is stepping up to provide these life-saving tools just in time for when 1.1 million children return to school.”
The law is the result of a collaborative effort between City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Transportation Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez. It was made possible through Governor Cuomo’s executive order and will remain in effect until the state passes its own legislation.
The New York City Council has passed a bill to reinstate the city’s 140 speed cameras in school zones, following an executive order by Governor Andrew Cuomo. But the question of the maneuver’s legality still hangs over the last-minute attempt the restart the program.
According to the text of the governor’s executive order, the potential impact of turning off the cameras—studies by both the city and state Departments of Transportation show they reduce speeding and traffic fatalities—creates a state of emergency for the city’s schoolchildren. That in turn allows him to sign an order that strikes the sunset clause in the speed camera (which led them to expire on July 25), and allows the Department of Motor Vehicles to share any relevant information on driver identity with the city. This will then let NYC run its own program sending tickets to driver who are caught by cameras going more than 10 miles above the speed limit.
The maneuver opened what Transportation Alternatives’ legislative and legal director Marco Conner calls a “two-track authority” to restart the program: On one track, getting rid of the sunset provision and ordering the DMV to cooperate with the city. On the other track is the city’s own authority to regulate its streets, covered by the state constitution’s “home rule” provision, which will be covered by the bill voted on by the full City Council today.
“We believe a strong argument in favor of the city’s authority is the home rule powers to legislate by municipality for the protection, safety, health, and well-being of people in the municipality,” Conner told Curbed after a Transportation committee hearing on the Council bill, referring to Article IX, section 2, subsection 10 of the state constitution.
Additional legal theory in support of the city running its own camera program comes from Steve Vaccaro of the law firm Vaccaro and White, who threaded a series of tweets arguing an older state law gives the city “broad authority” to regulate its streets:
2/13 New York City clearly has the authority to enact this legislation. Decades ago, the NY State legislature granted broad authority to the City to regulate traffic on City streets, codified in Vehicle & Traffic Law s. 1642. https://t.co/6lGgAiRHuY .— Vaccaro & White (@BikeNYCLaw) August 28, 2018
On the other hand, former Bloomberg administration state legislative affairs chief Micah Lasher suggested the state has really mucked things up here, opening a terrible paradox. City law depends on the state law no longer existing, but the Cuomo executive order specifically keeps the state law from sunsetting:
Meanwhile, the Gov’s EO suspends the sunset clause of the state law, keeping it in effect. I think, therefore, that if the Gov’s EO is lawful, the Council bill is no good. A court challenge could force the Council to attack the EO. 2/2— Micah Lasher (@MicahLasher) August 29, 2018
The city legislation also has its own separate wrinkles to unpack. While the governor said that the City Council bill authorizing its own camera program would be a “mirror of the state law,” the city bill doesn’t cap the number of cameras, nor does it cap the hours the city can run the cameras. But Conner argues that there, too, the city is legally in the clear. “Cuomo’s executive order calls for any other measure necessary to address the emergency and that would technically allow for the city to go beyond the 140,” he explained.
That expansion remains a possibility, according to DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg who testified during the City Council’s emergency hearing. “The mayor committed to take the next step, which is to expand the program to 290 cameras, which is what was authorized in the bill that passed the Assembly three times,” Trottenberg said, referring to an interview the mayor did this week in which he called expanding the camera program “smart” and “something we want to do.” Any expansion would happen after the school years starts on September 5.
The city law includes a sunset clause if the state legislature passes “a photo speed violation monitoring program in the city of New York that is identical to, substantially similar to or more expansive in scope than the program” that was passed by the state Assembly this year. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who was credited by the governor as being central to the deal to bring the cameras back, said as much during yesterday’s hearing, calling the city bill a replacement until the state comes back with something better because “we’re not rolling back protections for children.”
The renewal of the speed cameras comes at the end of a summer of furious lobbying for the state Senate to return to Albany to vote on a bill the Assembly passed that would expand the number of cameras from 140 to 290. Yesterday’s hearing didn’t focus as much on the legal issues at play as much as it was another opportunity for advocates and lawmakers to hammer home what they saw as the necessity of the cameras.
“Traffic violence is an emergency,” Debbie Marks Kahn of Families for Safe Streets said during testimony from advocates who’d lost family members to car crashes. “Someone is killed every 38 hours. Every six minutes someone in New York City is injured. Thousands of these are life-altering injuries. Each number is not just a statistic. It is about real human beings that once lived and breathed, and meant something to someone,” she said, praising the cameras as a tool to curb a culture of reckless driving.
“Until we reach that day, when all drivers respect their fellow New Yorkers and follow the law, we will continue to need the tools to enforce it,” Transportation Committee chair Ydanis Rodriguez said after defending the cameras as a tool and not a revenue grab. “Especially in the area where the most vulnerable are put in harm’s way.”