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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Brandes to red light cameras: Drop dead

4

September

It’s bill filing season again, so that can mean only one thing for red light cameras.

Yes, another attempt to remove them from public streets.

The Senate’s transportation chairman, Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, filed SB 144 on Wednesday. It would ban the use of the cameras, which are now used in at least 76 jurisdictions in Florida. (That includes Brandes’ hometown, where both mayoral candidates, Bill Foster and Rick Kriseman, support red light cameras -- which produced more than $3 million in revenue last year.)

“This program was originally sold as being about safety,” Brandes said. “I have come to believe that it’s now about revenue.”

A libertarian Republican, Brandes is a frequent critic of red light cameras, calling them a “backdoor tax increase.” He pointed to the small Central Florida city of Edgewood as an example of camera abuse. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the city has a population of 2,500 but handed out 10,000 red light citations in 2012.

“That city is covering a huge portion of its tax base with revenue from the cameras,” Brandes said. “How is that not a tax?”

No doubt, the cameras raise big money.

Of the $158 collected from every citation, the state takes $83. The remaining $75 is split between the city and the camera vendor.

Between July 2012 and June 2013, according to the Florida Department of Revenue, the cameras produced more than $62.5 million for the state.

All that money buys influence and power for the industry. The biggest player, by far, is American Traffic Solutions, a Tempe, Ariz. company, that operates the cameras in about 70 cities and counties in the state, including Miami, Tampa, Hillsborough County, New Port Richey, St. Petersburg and Ft. Lauderdale. It now has 24 lobbyists working for it in Tallahassee.

For good reason. In each legislative session since the cameras were legalized by lawmakers in 2011, bills have been filed seeking their repeal. Charles Territo, an ATS spokesman, hardly sounded surprised when told about Brandes’ bill and a promised companion bill in the House by Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami.

“This feels like this is Groundhog Day,” quipped Territo. “I’m shocked.”

He referred to company statistics that he said countered the notion cameras are all about revenue. From the fourth quarter in 2011 to the second quarter in 2013, ATS records show, the average number of citations per camera dropped by 40 percent for cameras installed before 2011 and by more than half for cameras installed between July 2011 and July 2012. Territo also claimed crashes dropped at intersections that used cameras, though academic research is far from conclusive. While Tampa has seen a decline, St. Petersburg has not.   

Territo said that lawmakers this year made important changes to Florida’s red light law, including doubling the time it takes to pay a citation, from 30 days to 60 days, before it increases another $110, and clarifying the rules on turning right on a red light. Also, on May 31, the Florida Department of Transportation announced it was increasing the yellow light change interval by 0.4 seconds, giving motorists more time to clear an intersection before the light turns red.

“These changes just went into effect,” Territo said. “The same lawmaker who supported the changes (Brandes) is now seeking the repeal of the cameras.”

Brandes did support the changes last session. He said he didn’t support a full repeal because it would have meant cancelling too many contracts. He said that he now plans to propose sunsetting the contracts that are now in existence, but prohibiting new contracts from getting finalized, which could pit him against cities and counties fretting about the loss of local control.

Even Brandes said he knows the odds are stacked against him.

“We aim for full repeal,” he said. “But we might get a moratorium on new cameras, and that’s just fine. We need something because the system is broken.”

[Last modified: Wednesday, September 4, 2013 4:02pm]

    

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