Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Are Traffic Cameras Meant to Improve Safety?

Apparently they work too well and don't pay for themselves anymore.

Dallas' red light cameras may face changes as revenue estimate drops

Dallas' system works too well, eating into revenues, fueling possible changes

12:00 AM CDT on Saturday, March 15, 2008
By DAVE LEVINTHAL / The Dallas Morning News

Dallas City Hall has idled more than one-fourth of the 62 cameras that monitor busy intersections because many of them are failing to generate enough red-light-running fines to justify their operational costs, according to city documents.

Initial gross revenue estimates for the red light camera system during Dallas' 2007-08 fiscal year were $14.8 million, according to city records. The latest estimate? About $6.2 million. City Manager Mary Suhm on Friday estimated net revenue will fall $4.1 million under initial estimates.

That leaves Dallas government with a conundrum. Its red-light camera system has been an effective deterrent to motorists running red lights – some monitored intersections have experienced a more than 50 percent reduction. But decreased revenue from red light-running violations means significantly less revenue to maintain the camera program and otherwise fuel the city's general fund.

Exacerbating the drain is a new state law requiring that municipalities send half of their net red-light-running camera revenue to Austin and post signs alerting drivers of upcoming camera installations. Also, city records indicate Dallas has lengthened yellow-light intervals on 12 of its 62 monitored traffic signals, giving motorists more time to beat a red light.

City transportation officials say they're brainstorming potential changes to the red-light camera program, which is financed by the general fund, before a planned update to the City Council next month on the program's status.

"We did not anticipate having such success so early with the number of people not running red lights," said Zaida Basora, Dallas' assistant director of public works and transportation. "If you have success in safety, you don't have a lot of success in revenue. The other side is the people will go back to what they were doing before without the cameras."

Curtailing expansion?

Ms. Basora says one likely recommendation to the council is scaling back Dallas' plans to expand the red-light system to 100 cameras.

The council in September voted to expand its camera vendor contract with Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Services, from five years and $13.3 million to seven years and $29.1 million, in order to install the additional cameras.

Initial plans envisioned most of the additional cameras operating by spring. Ms. Basora said installing fewer cameras would probably be more cost-effective.

Another idea staff may recommend to council members is idling cameras on a rotating basis, which the city already has begun doing, or operating them at different intersections where red-light running is more habitual.

In the first case, cameras will remain perched above the intersections they monitor but won't snap pictures of red-light runners, and therefore, won't generate $75 civil citations, which the city mails to the offending vehicles' owners.

Ms. Basora noted, however, that most motorists won't realize this and behave as if the cameras are operational.

Dallas pays ACS a guaranteed $3,799 per month for each operational camera, and just a fraction of that to maintain inoperative cameras.

Safety vs. money

The results of Dallas' 2-year-old red-light camera system are mixed blessings for City Hall, Mayor Tom Leppert said.

"The good news is it's having the effect everyone in this community wants: fewer red lights being run. The goal was not to make money on this," Mr. Leppert said. "But these are numbers and realities we'll have to deal with."

The mayor added that under no circumstances does he expect a decrease in red-light camera revenue to affect the city's public safety budget, although the overall budget may not enjoy as much revenue, perhaps resulting in the city streamlining other items.

Council member Angela Hunt, long skeptical of the reasoning behind such camera systems, says she's not surprised Dallas is faced with altering its efforts to reduce red-light running.

"The idea of the red-light cameras is that they'll be used as a revenue generator instead of being implemented for public safety purposes. It's imperative that the council review this program, especially when the results don't align with the initial performance projections," Ms. Hunt said.

She cited national statistics suggesting that the cameras increase rear-end collisions.

Dallas officials haven't yet determined if such crashes, or crashes in general, have increased or decreased significantly because of red-light cameras.

But in Lubbock, the City Council voted 4-3 last month to terminate its red-light camera system, in part because of an increase in rear-end crashes.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, plans to introduce legislation next session banning red-light cameras statewide – a measure that failed last session.

Finding right number

Jim Baxter, president of the National Motorists Association, which opposes red-light camera systems, says he suspects Dallas' system will either meet its demise, or be noticeably scaled back.

"They're in between a rock and a hard place, and when the money goes away, the cameras go away," Mr. Baxter said. "Probably the only way they can sustain it is to raise the violation rates, despite all the protestation that this is about safety and not about revenue."

Dallas' red-light camera system will still generate revenue, Ms. Basora said, "but it won't be considerable."

Mayor Pro Tem Elba Garcia said Dallas' red-light cameras should remain because they're a proven tool in reducing red-light running. That's reason enough to keep them, she said.

"The golden question is how many cameras do we need? We'll have to look at the numbers carefully," Dr. Garcia said. "But for me, this has always been about safety, has always been about awareness. We did not do this for the money."