Council extends red light camera contract

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNISMetro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, right, makes a motion during a meeting Wednesday to extend for one year the current services of American Traffic Solutions, Inc.  (ATS), the company that maintains the parish's red light camera system.
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNISMetro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, right, makes a motion during a meeting Wednesday to extend for one year the current services of American Traffic Solutions, Inc. (ATS), the company that maintains the parish's red light camera system.

Traffic light cameras used to monitor and enforce red light violations in East Baton Rouge Parish will continue to be used until at least the end of the year.

The Metro Council voted 8-1 Wednesday to keep the cameras in place until Dec. 31, in lieu of a request by Mayor-President Kip Holden’s office to renew the camera contract with American Traffic Solutions for another five years.

John Price, assistant chief administrative officer to Holden, called the cameras the “most successful program the city has.”

“The use of red light cameras is us embracing technology to provide a public service,” Price said. “You don’t have an officer chasing an individual through a red light, and you are able to use manpower in other places.”

He also noted that the cameras do not cost the city-parish money and they have resulted in total revenue of $8.4 million since 2008. ATS takes 35 percent of red light traffic fines to cover its costs.

Several council members said earlier this week that they needed to see definitive proof the cameras were reducing vehicle collisions and improving driver safety in order for them to be able to support renewing the contract with ATS for another five years.

Price told the council Wednesday the detailed collision reports they receive from Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development were inaccurate because law enforcement officers who supply the information were not correctly inputting the locations of the accidents.

He said staff is sorting through the data over the next few months to provide accurate collision reports for the council that can illustrate whether the cameras have had an impact on driver safety.

Once council members have more information, they will be asked to consider renewing the contract for an extended time.

Ultimately, the council opted to extend the contract through the year, rather than ending the contract entirely, because the city-parish has already budgeted $1.6 million in red light fines for the Baton Rouge Police Department budget.

“It’s amazing that the city of Baton Rouge doesn’t have the numbers or statistics to back up its public safety,” Councilman Buddy Amoroso said. “But it would be unfair to stop, because the money is budgeted.”

Amoroso, Councilman Ryan Heck and Councilman John Delgado said they would eventually like voters to decide whether the parish should keep the cameras.

There are already some indicators that the cameras have begun changing driver behavior, Price said, noting that the number of annual red light citations has dropped 19 percent since 2010, which he said was the peak year.

Between 2008 — the first year the cameras were put in place — and 2012, drivers paid $13,355,811 in fines 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 Police Department’s budget.

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

A red light violation has a fine of $117, with a $35 late payment penalty.

The cameras are only placed at 20 intersections, but since implemented they have quadrupled the number 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.

In 2008, there were 22,794 red light tickets. By 2010, the number had almost doubled. But in 2011, there were 33,877 and in 2012 there were 35,688. 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.

About 88 percent of license plates identified in red light running violations were never issued a second violation after paying their citation, which Price said suggests a low rate of recidivism.

Councilman Scott Wilson voted against extending the camera contract until the year’s end.

Councilmembers Amoroso, Heck, Delgado, Chauna Banks-Daniel, Ronnie Edwards, C. Denise Marcelle, Chandler Loupe and Tara Wicker supported the extension.

Council members Trae Welch, Donna Collins-Lewis and Joel Boe’ were not present.