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The B.C. government is expanding the use of red-light cameras to target speeding motorists this year, but local governments that are in line for the additional revenue from the fines should not count their new cash flow yet.

The Insurance Corporation of B.C. (ICBC) operates the cameras, and the province pays the cost of policing. Under a pact between the province and municipalities, the fines collected from motorists are directed to local governments.

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Red light and speeding camera.DAVID BLOOM/The Canadian Press

The additional revenue is expected to amount to tens of millions of dollars annually, and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth has his own ideas about where that money should go.

Mr. Farnworth suggested the province does not have to hand the new revenue over to municipalities automatically. “Right now, we have an agreement in place. But if there is a change to the program, obviously, we would want to work with them on a change to the way the revenue from that program operates as well.”

The NDP government is seeking to forge a good working relationship with municipal governments, and Mr. Farnworth was careful not to signal that any decision has been made without the mayors at the table.

But at the same time, the province is hungry for new revenue. It has extended itself with costly new programs for daycare, housing and more, while facing cash-flow challenges at its major Crown corporations.

The province currently has 140 red-light cameras at intersections with high crash rates. Some of those cameras will be upgraded – at the province’s expense − to identify and ticket speeding vehicles in addition to those that run red lights.

Speed is the top contributing factor in fatal crashes across B.C., and doubling up the use of the cameras is billed as a way to reduce ICBC costs by preventing some of them. The number of vehicle accidents in B.C. is climbing rapidly, and insurance rates have not kept pace with the cost of settling claims.

In the provincial budget tabled in February, the government warned the financial pressure on its auto insurer is growing. “All of the measures ICBC and Government have implemented are not enough to close the ever-increasing gap between the premiums being collected and the cost of the claims being paid out,” budget document warns. “Additional changes are needed.”

The changes to the red-light cameras are among reforms designed to restore ICBC’s finances without requiring massive rate hikes.

Speed monitoring at the intersections with red-light cameras between 2012 and 2016 showed that 17 per cent of vehicles travelling through those intersections were speeding. If the province targets only excessive speeders, it would still be a large number. In that five-year period, a total of 1.5 million vehicles entered those intersections at more than 30 kilometres an hour above the speed limit.

The province has not decided yet how many cameras it will convert, so Mr. Farnworth’s ministry cannot estimate how much the expansion will cost. The price of altering a camera to track speeders is $100,000, but there will be costs for more data processing, and more special constables will be hired to review images and issue tickets to offending drivers.

Rick McCandless, a retired B.C. bureaucrat who follows ICBC’s finances closely, says the revenue should be returned to the Crown corporation.

As a senior government official, Mr. McCandless was involved in the transfer of responsibility for drivers’ licence services to ICBC in the 1990s. But with that transfer, ICBC also collected the revenue for new licences, so there was no added cost.

Since then, however, the province clawed back the licence revenues and has dumped new traffic safety responsibilities on ICBC – such as the red-light cameras – without sharing the associated revenues.

ICBC’s non-insurance costs – money spent providing government services such as fine collections and driver licensing – added up to $132-million last year. As well, the Crown corporation contributed $36-million for enforcement and road improvement. Mr. McCandless says those costs amount to a subsidy for B.C. taxpayers, and the money could be used to reduce pressure on rates for ICBC’s customers.

“Policyholders have, for years, been subsidizing taxpayers,” he said in an interview.

Mr. Farnworth agreed that the new revenue from the intersection cameras would look good in ICBC’s revenue stream. “Certainly I think that would be an appropriate place for it to go.”

It was easy enough for government to dump program costs on its Crown corporation when ICBC had a healthy balance sheet. But now, with hefty rate hikes looming, ratepayers can rightly ask if they are paying for services that are not really related to the cost of providing insurance.

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