Small Towns Across The US Are Trading The Environment For Revenue

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In the largest such study to date, Governing Magazine took a hard look at revenues from traffic fines. The authors found that an alarming number of local governments are “dangerously dependent on punitive fines and fees.” Governing focused on the precarious financial situation this leaves these municipalities in, and that’s no joke, but it’s also important to look at the ways in which these unethical practices affect the environment.

The Data

The special report on the study is worth reading in its entirety. It paints a bleak picture for hundreds of municipalities across the US. The findings are summarized below:

Large Share of General Revenues: Fines and forfeitures account for more than 10 percent of general fund revenues for nearly 600 jurisdictions. In at least 284 of those, the share exceeded 20 percent, the threshold set by Missouri in its post-Ferguson reforms. Another 80 governments reported even higher fines accounting for more than half of general revenues.

High Fines Per Capita: When fine and forfeiture revenues in all governmental funds are considered, more than 720 localities reported annual revenues exceeding $100 for every adult resident, while 363 exceeded $200 per adult.

Top States: A select group of states are home to the majority of localities with relatively high fine revenues, while they’re mostly absent elsewhere. We found they’re most common in Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, New York, Oklahoma and Texas. (See state totals.)

Exceeding State Revenue Caps: Laws in a few states limit revenues that localities generate from fines. But we found some governments still exceeded revenues caps in Georgia and Missouri.

Poorer Cities and Towns: Jurisdictions relying more on fines to fund their budgets have often sustained decades of economic decline, leaving them with weak tax bases. Those where fines and forfeitures accounted for more than 20 percent of general fund revenues recorded a median household income of only $39,594.

Out-of-Town Revenues: Research suggests police favor local residents when writing traffic tickets. At least 124 jurisdictions we reviewed recorded annual fine revenues exceeding $500 per capita, suggesting out-of-towners are likely funding much of the budgets.

Governing also compiled a map with detailed information about its findings in each city with more than 10% of revenue coming from fines, or with more than $100 per resident per year (suggesting a large take from out-of-towners):

A screenshot of the map, showing how widespread the issue is, and how it’s also a bigger problem in some regions. The full map (zoomable, and with detailed information) is available here. Screenshot from

The Implications

In addition to the data, Governing points out that changes in technology are likely to hit these municipalities hard. For example, if autonomous driving proliferates, the number of people caught in speed traps unaware would plummet. The more dependent they are on revenue from traffic fines from people passing through, the more such changes would damage their finances.

It’s important to keep in mind how these jurisdictions manage to generate so much revenue from people passing through. Organizations like the National Motorist Association point out that there is a difference between strict traffic enforcement and speed traps. Strict enforcement exists to enhance traffic safety and/or increase compliance with traffic laws. Speed traps are set up to collect unusual amounts of revenue by tricking motorists into violating the law.

There are a variety of ways this trickery is accomplished. In some cases, vegetation is allowed to obscure or shade speed limit signage. In others, the change in speed serves no safety purpose, and doesn’t accompany any of the other things motorists see that heighten their awareness of lowering speed limits (entering a small town, unusual curves or terrain). In what may be the most unethical case, Hampton, Florida annexed a 1-mile stretch of a busy state highway that went completely outside of the town, making the city’s limits have an unusual shape, like a gerrymandered political map.

How These Speed Traps Harm the Environment

Speed traps often rely upon abrupt and large changes in the speed limit. The people who continue going close to the reasonable speed limits before and after the trap produce lower emissions than those who comply with the unethical laws.

While hybrid and electric vehicles reduce the impact of this through regenerative braking, the impact is still there. Having to suddenly reduce speed results in particulate emissions from a car’s brakes, causes an increase in fuel consumption, and an unnecessary shift for vehicles with multi-speed transmissions. When the unusually low speed limit ends, vehicles must use extra energy to get back to normal speeds.

When thousands of cars do this every day, the relatively small impacts add up to big increases in everything from particulates to carbon for internal combustion cars and reduced range for electric vehicles (which must use more electricity, which increases emissions elsewhere or unnecessarily increases need to build renewable energy sources).

While many small towns need these speed limit reductions for public safety, the towns identified by Governing aren’t doing what they do for public safety. While increases in emissions are a relatively small consideration compared to the value of human life, undergoing this environmental impact for corrupt and unethical reasons has no redeeming value.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1954 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba