Metro Council to take on red light cameras in EBR

Advocate file photo by MARK SALTZ -- The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council will consider Wednesday whether to renew a five-year contract with a company that manages the city-parish's red light traffic cameras, like these at Lee Drive facing north toward Perkins Road.
Advocate file photo by MARK SALTZ -- The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council will consider Wednesday whether to renew a five-year contract with a company that manages the city-parish's red light traffic cameras, like these at Lee Drive facing north toward Perkins Road.

The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council will consider Wednesday whether to renew a contract with the company that manages red light cameras, but some council members say they’d like to do away with the automated ticketing system.

The city-parish approved a five-year contract with American Traffic Solutions for a traffic signal enforcement system in August 2007, and the Metro Council is being asked to renew the controversial camera system contract for five more years.

“From a safety standpoint, while I know they’re not popular, there’s a lot of evidence that they’re reducing accidents and changing people’s driving habits,” said William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Mayor-President Kip Holden.

Daniel said the primary purpose of the cameras is to promote driver safety, but he added that the funds generated by the cameras are “certainly something that we count on.”

Between 2008 — the first year the cameras were put in place — and 2012, drivers paid $13,355,811 in fees for running red lights, an average of about $2.7 million per year, according to city-parish budget documents.

Of those funds, ATS collected $4,985,040. The city-parish collected the remaining funds, which went to the Baton Rouge Police Department’s budget.

The police department’s budget for 2013 includes $1,638,000 in projected revenue from fines generated by red light tickets.

A red light violation has a fee of $117, with a $35 late fee.

The cameras are only placed at 20 intersections, but since implemented they have quadrupled the amount of tickets being issued on a yearly basis. The cameras take snapshots of cars that run red lights and traffic tickets are mailed to the offender.

A 2011 review of the camera system by The Advocate found that 5,300 red light tickets were manually written by law enforcement officers in 2007 and 8,464 were written in 2006 — before the camera system was put in place.

The first year the cameras were installed, 22,794 tickets were issued. The next year, 34,853 tickets were issue and in 2010, 41,110 tickets were issued.

Councilman Ryan Heck said he opposes the camera system but would prefer to allow voters to decide if they want the cameras.

“William (Daniel) says this isn’t for revenue, it’s for public safety — but if it’s about public safety then let’s add a second or two to the yellow light,” Heck said, adding that other cities have seen a reductions in the number of crashes as a result of that move.

Heck said other traffic solutions are available to address public safety issues “that don’t cost the public $150 when they make poor decisions.”

Heck also questioned whether the camera ticketing system violates the constitutional rights of individuals. It is a question several court systems across the country are wrestling with as a result of a flood of lawsuits that have been filed in various municipalities.

A federal court decision in New Mexico about the constitutionality of the cameras is pending, and legal challenges to the cameras in Florida are making their way toward that state’s supreme court, according to news reports.

Councilman Buddy Amoroso also said he is opposed to the use of red light cameras.

“I believe they are more for revenue enhancement than for public safety,” he said. “I’ve never been convinced they ever served a role in improving public safety.”

Amoroso said he’ll either vote against the contract renewal, or he’ll ask for a 60-day deferral in the hopes of putting it to a vote of the parish.

Some council members said they would like to see evidence the cameras are improving safety.

“I know the community has mixed views on the use of those cameras,” said Councilwoman Tara Wicker. “I’m looking forward to seeing if they can really show it’s reducing the amount of traffic crashes and doing what it’s supposed to do. I’m not all that convinced that it is.”

Councilman Scott Wilson said many constituents perceive the cameras as a “money grab.”

He said the administration will have to make “a very convincing argument” that the cameras are truly improving public safety in order to win his support.

“It seems like people are still trying to beat the light, or else they stop at the last minute because they’re afraid of the ticket and get rear ended,” Wilson said.

Councilman Trae Welch said he can’t attend Wednesday’s meeting, so his absence will effectively count as a vote against the renewal.

Renewing the contract requires affirmative votes from seven council members.

The contract is set to expire on Feb. 17, which Welch said doesn’t give the council adequate time to make a decision.

“Why are we just getting this now? This is something they should have brought to us six months ago,” he said, noting that the council as of Monday had received minimal information about the cameras.

Daniel and John Price, assistant chief administrative officer for the mayor, said they have information supporting their claims that the cameras have improved safety. However, they did not make that information available to The Advocate as of late Tuesday afternoon.

A 2011 report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety examined red light camera studies conducted internationally and concluded that the cameras generally lower red light violations by 40 to 50 percent and injury crashes by 25 to 30 percent.

Red light cameras are used in approximately 543 communities as of this month, according to the IIHS.

If Baton Rouge decides to discontinue using the cameras, it will be following in the footsteps of cities like Houston and Los Angeles whose city councils have in recent years opted to pull the plug on their red light camera programs.

At least nine states have prohibited the red light camera systems entirely according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. They are Mississippi, Arkansas, Nevada, Montana, New Hampshire, Utah, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Maine.

The Metro Council is expected to vote on the contract renewal at 4 p.m. Wednesday in City Hall.

รค ON THE INTERNET:

To see a full list of intersections with red light cameras, visit: http://brgov.com/RedLight/locations.htm