Note: Before reading this, it would probably be a good idea to take a look at the last two reports on this subject:
- Short Yellow Signal Times in St. Petersburg
- Short Yellow Signal Problems Reveal Deeper Issues in St. Petersburg’s Traffic and Parking Department
This update goes over what has happened in the last month and a half of my investigation into the short yellow signal problems in St. Petersburg. Specifically, the topics of faulty traffic signal controllers and the use of the grade of an approach in determining the yellow signal length.
A lot has happened in the last month and a half on this matter, including the January 16th, 2014 St. Petersburg PS&I (Public Services and Infrastructure) Committee meeting. Both before and after the meeting, this issue received a lot of press attention, with articles in both major newspapers and on all major local network TV news programs.
In a WFLA NBC local news report we learned that Joe Kubicki changed his story again on the use of slope, or grade, in the yellow signal calculation, saying that his department had “used an older FDOT recommendation.” Just days before that, they were still telling City Council members that FDOT had “directed” the city to use only a 0% grade when calculating yellow time in the city. I was also told this a week before.
Kubicki’s story changed for a third time during the PS&I committee meeting, saying that “we do not have the budget to survey the 22 camera approaches”.
Two weeks later, my second public records request finally received a more definitive answer:
“There is no document or correspondence from FDOT that directs the city to use an approach grade of 0% for the calculation of yellow time. In the past FDOT staff have advise us that without any better information to use 0%.” and “the Traffic Signal Coordinator has assumed 0% was the standard grade to use in this area of Florida.”
So we have gone from a “directive” by FDOT, to an “old recommendation” by FDOT, to “we do not have the budget” to do surveys, to FDOT telling them that if they haven’t bothered to survey just use 0%. That’s 4 different stories in just one month’s time, and none of them have any documentation to back them up.
Let’s examine the claims of not having enough money to do these surveys. The one elevation and grade survey that I paid to have performed on the Eastbound approach of 1st Ave. S. & 34th St. cost $600. I have received an official quote from the same Traffic Engineering firm to perform 21 more of those surveys, one at each of the other camera approaches, and it would cost $11,900. The City has spend $152,680.54 in the last 4 years on Kimley-Horn consulting studies to help justify and analyze the optional red light camera program. There was no legal requirement for the city to commission these Kimley-Horn reports. But the city did have a legal requirement to calculate the yellow times according to the ITE formula, which requires a grade measurement. So they had money for those optional reports that cost over 12 times what the grade surveys would have cost, but didn’t have any money to perform grade surveys at those intersections as required by state law? I don’t buy that excuse.
Now back to that earliest explanation given for this grade issue, that FDOT had “directed” the city to ignore grade in yellow time calculations. During the PS&I committee meeting, Councilmember Amy Foster asked Joe Kubicki specifically why she had been told that FDOT directed the city to ignore the grade of intersections. Kubicki responded by complaining about me for a few minutes, but he never did answer her question. Then committee chairman Dudley ended the meeting because it had run over the available time. I did finally receive a response to my second public records request on that supposed FDOT directive, it is quoted above. There never was a directive from FDOT, and they now blame the City’s Traffic Signal Coordinator for ignoring the grade of intersection approaches as part of calculating yellow signal time.
More on the PS&I Committee Meeting
One of the few good things that came out of the PS&I meeting was that Kubicki had announced that based upon the survey I had done, they had lengthened the yellow time at the Eastbound approach of 1st Ave. S. and 34th St. by 0.2 seconds. Unfortunately, this was tempered by Kubicki saying refunds for the city’s mistake would not be forthcoming. That prompted this column by Joe Henderson to appear in the St. Petersburg Tribune a few days later.
The PS&I committee meeting was actually supposed to be about increasing yellow signal times only, a report that Councilman Gerdes had requested 10 months ago. But only about 15 minutes were spent addressing this topic, and the committee was told that FDOT would not approve raising yellow times above the minimums. The majority of the time spent in the meeting was on the 2nd year red light camera update, a report that councilmembers and the public didn’t have enough time to review before the meeting. It is unclear why Joe Kubicki decided to present this report at this meeting without it being on the agenda and without giving Council or the public time to review the materials. As for me, I requested a copy of it through the City Clerk right after the meeting, and it took over a week for me to receive it. I have posted it here, and after a quick review there are a lot of things missing in this report compared to the first year report. What isn’t missing since last year’s report is a lot of mathematical errors, If you want to see a middle-school math teacher cringe, just show them page 63.
I’m not going to go over the issues with the red light camera program and the second year update right now, that will be covered in detail in a report I will release before the City Council Workshop later this week.
Acknowledgement of Short Yellows
On the subject of short yellow signals, On February 10th I had a meeting with members of the Traffic Signalling Department, as well as Mike Conners, Joe Kubicki, Michael Frederick, Councilman Gerdes, a representative of the Police Department and two employees from ATS (American Traffic Solutions), the city’s red light camera vendor. The purpose of the meeting was strictly to go over evidence of yellow lights being shorter than the city had set them to, and the related red light camera citations that were issued to people that would not have received them if the yellow lights had been the proper length. The presentation is available here.
After presenting citation videos that showed inadequate yellow light times when going frame by frame, they admitted that there was clearly an issue, and that the yellow lights were not the length that the city had set them to in the examples I had shown, and that the citation yellow signal lengths were in fact accurate. It should also be mentioned that recently the police reviewers have been more closely watching the yellow signal time on potential citations before approving them, which is why this short yellow citation problem caused by equipment issues has dropped off to nothing in the last several months. The issue of what to do with people that had received those citations will have to be handled by City Council. But, on that topic, at the same time I was in that meeting in St. Petersburg, the city of Winter Park announced that it will start refunding almost $90,000 in short yellow citations and throwing out other unpaid tickets that were given out at short yellow intersections in that city. So, we now have a precedent for a city in Florida voluntarily refunding short-yellow red light camera citations.
A “Very Thorough Internal Investigation”?
Related to the short yellow investigation, I also had a public records request in for all documents relating to the City’s internal investigation into the short yellow problem, where they concluded that the citations and videos were wrong and their signal timing had always been correct. After five weeks I received a response, “no documents, notes, memos, or other recorded data was created” related to the internal investigation. The department simply contacted the signal contractor and they said all of the signals were operating within acceptable tolerances. The City’s red light camera vendor, ATS, was not involved in determining that their citations and videos were faulty and inaccurate, and it’s clear that none of the available videos were reviewed during the course of their investigation. I find it very strange that a “very thorough internal investigation” as described by Kubicki to City Council was neither “internal” nor thorough enough to generate a single document, especially after I was told over a month ago that staff was still “collecting the requested data” on this internal investigation to fulfill my records request.
What Happens Next?
During the week of the PS&I meeting, I was able to speak to several City Council members as well as Mayor Kriseman and his Chief of Staff Kevin King. I was told that this issue isn’t settled, and something will be announced on this in the near future.
So, what happens next? Here in St. Petersburg on February 27th at 2pm, the City Council will take on the topic of refunds for people issued citations at intersections with short yellow lights, both zero-grade short yellows and equipment-problem short yellows. I am sure this will turn into a meeting discussing the entire red light camera program just like the PS&I meeting, so it will be an important one to watch.
At the state level, there will be a lot happening this session in the Legislature with new bills to more heavily regulate, reduce and/or eliminate red light cameras, all being debated in the next few months. Governor Scott has been non-committal on the subject of red light cameras, but it is very likely that some kind of bill related to them will arrive on his desk before session is over.