8/17/2018Federal Funds Turn Texas Speed Traps Into Municipal Windfall
Austin, Texas turns $1 million in federal speed trap funding into $4.7 million in annual profit.
Federal taxpayers are footing the bill for Texas police officers to sit on the side of the road with a radar gun under strict orders to issue a certain number of speeding tickets. These officers are paid a generous premium on their regular salary with cash transferred from gas tax revenue collected from around the nation. A report released earlier this month by Austin's city auditor reveals just how dependent localities have become on the enforcement subsidies.
Last year, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) received $19,632,210 in federal funding from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) for programs that focus almost exclusively on traffic citations. The state agency divides that cash among a number of programs, and cities throughout Texas apply for their share.
Under TxDOT's Selective Traffic Enforcement Program (STEP), the city of Austin takes $1 million from US taxpayers to boost ticket writing over the course of a full year. In 2017, Austin used the cash to pay police officers 150 percent of their normal salary to sit behind radar guns for a total of 1173 hours. The result proved profitable, as a majority of the 115,499 traffic tickets handed out in the Texas capital that year were issued by officers working under this grant. That helped the city generate a net profit of $4.7 million for the municipal court's general fund. Officers pocketing the federally boosted salary were responsible for 54 percent of the speeding tickets, 62 percent of seatbelt tickets and 45 percent of human-issued red light running citations.
Austin officials told the city auditor that the purpose of the program is safety, not revenue generation. In fact, Texas Transportation Code Section 720.002 prohibits officers from being compensated according to a specific number of traffic citations issued.
Both state and federal rules governing the STEP grant, on the other hand, require that cities issue a predetermined number of tickets. The Texas Traffic Safety Plan sets "performance measures" such as the "number of speeding citations [issued] during funded enforcement activities." This figure is compared against a baseline.
"Baseline is a number serving as a foundation for subgrantees to measure pre-grant traffic enforcement activity," TxDOT's STEP grant manual explains. "Once the baseline is established, these figures will be used to compare with the subsequent year's grant traffic enforcement activity. "
Participating officers must submit "daily activity reports" which detail the number and type of tickets issued. No credit is given for warnings, and officers who fail to produce the expected amount will not be compensated under the program in the future. The pressure is so intense that 25 police officers in 2012 were busted for padding their ticket numbers to boost their take-home pay.
Statewide, about fifty state and county jurisdictions shared $9,590,450 in STEP funding for speed traps. The effort generated 261,112 speeding tickets, 39,223 seat belt citations and 138,200 tickets for other alleged minor offenses. The totals do not include short-term "wave enforcement" grants that pay officers double their normal salary to operate speed traps on holidays. Another $2.8 million in federal funding went to buying online, radio and television advertisements discouraging drunk driving in Texas.
All fifty states run similar programs under the NHTSA grants. NHTSA earlier this year refused to change its rules to remove the ticket quota incentives. A copy of the Austin audit is available in a 2mb PDF file at the source link below.