Three safe streets initiatives took steps forward Thursday as Philadelphia City Council approved an ordinance that could create a new class of traffic enforcement officer, and introduced legislation to allow speed cameras in the city and make protected bike lanes permanent on Market Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard.
“Suddenly all this stuff coming at the same time,” said Randy LoBasso, spokesperson for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, among the city’s most vocal advocates for street improvements. “It’s something.”
The “public safety” officer bill, passed by a 13-4 vote, now goes to Philadelphia voters via a May 21 ballot question, asking whether they want the special class of officer. Creating the position requires an amendment to the City Charter.
The speed camera legislation will likely be debated in the Streets and Services Committee in April. The bike lanes, which put parking spaces between cyclists and traffic from 15th to 20th Streets on Market and JFK, were introduced as a pilot program in June 2018, and city officials have said they have already helped slow traffic on the busy arteries. No further action on that bill has been scheduled yet.
The public safety officer legislation is short on details. It does not specify what enforcement powers officers would have, saying only that they would offer “support to the Police Department to regulate the flow of traffic.” It does not address staffing or cost.
If the ballot question is approved, the city would have one year to work out the specifics on how to use and organize the new officers, said City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, who introduced the ordinance.
The new public safety officers would not be armed and would not have the power to arrest or detain people, Clarke said. They would be assigned to curtail behavior from drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians that contribute to congestion. They also would assist police and help with quality-of-life issues in the city’s neighborhoods. The officers would be assigned to different city departments by the managing director, who would determine the number needed.
>>READ MORE: Why is Philly stuck in traffic?
Clarke has said he envisioned about 100 civil service officers paid through the general fund and would eventually want to see them under the authority of the Philadelphia Police Department. Police Commissioner Richard Ross spoke in favor of the proposal during Council hearings last week, but the police union has been adamant in its opposition.
“We’ve previously said we’ve got enough officers to go do those jobs,” said Mike Neilon, a spokesperson for Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, which represents city officers.
The union reiterated Thursday that creating the position would violate state law that grants traffic enforcement powers to police officers. The union, Neilon said, would fight the creation of the new class of officers with the state labor board if the public votes to create it.
Clarke said that using sworn officers to do traffic enforcement was a misuse of resources in a city with a high crime rate. He said he did not think the new class of officers would violate state law.
“The things that we looked at clearly allow us to do what these people would be called on to do,” he said.
The flow of traffic on Philadelphia’s streets has worsened as the population grows, ride-share companies have moved in, and the boom in e-commerce brings a glut of delivery trucks to narrow streets. A report from the Center City District earlier this year found travel through Center City slowed from 2013 to 2017 for both private vehicles and public buses.
Councilman David Oh, who voted against the creation of special officers, said there were other alternatives to ease traffic congestion. He questioned the need for special officers in a city that doesn’t have severe traffic at all hours of the day, and he was concerned about unanswered questions about cost.
“Nobody has told me the cost of this,” Oh said. “I don’t know how we just throw in an entire new class of employees.”
The speed camera bill introduced Thursday by Councilwoman Cherelle Parker has been long awaited by city planners. Pennsylvania’s legislature approved the use of speed cameras on Roosevelt Boulevard in October 2018, but City Council has to approve them before they can be installed.
The legislation would allow for cameras at seven to 11 locations along 11½ miles of the Boulevard and would likely be spaced close to a mile and a half apart. Fines would be tiered, with the smallest being $100 for traveling 11 mph to 20 mph over the speed limit (45 mph on most of the Boulevard). Going 31 mph over the speed limit would result in a $150 ticket. The cameras, which would be administered by the Philadelphia Parking Authority, would be in place by the end of this year. Motorists would get a 60-day grace period in which the cameras would issue warnings. Signs along the road would warn motorists that they were being watched by automatic enforcement.
Roosevelt Boulevard is considered the most dangerous thruway in the city, accounting for 8 percent of all crashes that resulted in death or serious injury in the city from 2013 to 2017. Last year, 21 people died on the road, according to preliminary police data.