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WTSP: As profits plunge, red light cameras could go dark around Tampa Bay

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Local governments across Florida are reconsidering red light cameras after longer yellow lights statewide reduced the ability to profit off of the program.

While politicians hope that terminating contracts will end the controversy, Noah Pransky of WTSP-TV notes that it only adds to the debate: are RLCs actually a safety measure or are they simply for profit?

Of every violation — usually a $158 fine — $83 goes to the State of Florida; the remaining $75 goes to pay RLC contracts, which can cost as much as $50,000 annually per camera.

Shorter yellow lights gave cities the ability to reap millions in dollars in fines, providing vast amounts of revenue. However, as the number of citations dropped, those same municiplities are now wondering if ticket revenue alone can pay for camera programs.

American Traffic Solutions (ATS), Florida’s top provider of red light cameras, has worked to keep the programs alive.

However, in Tampa Bay, 10 Investigates found that it is Sensys — the company reposible for Brookville’s RLCs — that has been the most aggressive. The compnay has gone as far as suing the City of Brooksville over plans by the City Council to end its camera program, which has been unpopular with citizens.

In St. Petersburg, the city came to an agreement with ATS to remove cameras last fall, once lawmakers found that the program was losing money. After the city had shut down RLCs, crash rates at intersections previously monitored by the cameras did not rise over the following six months.

As Pransky notes:

Using the state’s FIRES portal, 10 Investigates checked collision and injury stats for every St. Petersburg intersection that had been monitored by red light cameras. Comparing incidents approaching – or in – the nine intersections, there was no increase in accidents after the city terminated its RLC program on September 30, 2014.

From March 2014 to September 2014, St. Pete’s nine monitored intersections had 99 crashes, including 46 with injuries and 1 fatality. From October 2014 to March 2014, the same intersections – without automated RLC ticketing – had 96 crashes, including 48 with injuries but no fatalities.

10 Investigates’ analysis did not take into account the traffic counts, which tend to be a bit higher from October to March.

Only one St. Pete intersection had a post-RLC increase in crashes: Gandy and 4th Street, which is currently under major construction. So as critics try to make hay from St. Pete’s numbers, Pransky says that the statistics are still inconclusive as to the program’s safety benefits.

There are some statistics supporting the expansion of RLCs, with a slow decline in citations as drivers become more aware of the camera’s presence, suggesting they can be tools to reduce drivers running red lights.

On the other hand, Pransky adds that improved crash data can also be explained by the 2-second “all-red” interval that the state mandates for every Florida intersection. Combined with longer yellow lights,  this all-red could be considered an effective deterrent. They protect the first cars at the beginning of a traffic cycle from running red lights as they attempt to sneak through in either the left or right lanes.

Those regions with red light cameras were given until Dec. 31, 2013, to extend yellow and all-red intervals at RLC intersections; the safety adjustments are required at every Florida intersection by Dec. 31 of this year.

Longer yellow lights have virtually eliminated RLC profits in Tampa, running at a loss in some months. Nevertheless, incoming TPD Chief Eric Ward told WTSP the city has no plans to change its RLC policy.

“Well, the ultimate goal of the red light cameras is to change driving behavior,” Ward said. “And I think we’ve done that.”

Ward added that it was up to Mayor Bob Buckhorn to determine the future of the program.

But RLCs in Tampa are also decided by the City Council, who nearly canceled the contract in 2014 after a heated disagreement over the program’s profits. Since the ATS contract renewed without renegotiations, all of the fines collected by the city goes to the camera company.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.

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