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Clearwater approves red light cameras at two sites

CLEARWATER — Red-light cameras will watch two city intersections starting early next year, under a contract approved Tuesday by the City Council.

Members voted 3-2 to sign a contract with Redflex Traffic Systems to operate the cameras for at least six months. Red-light runners would receive $158 tickets.

Cameras will watch two intersections that over the last three years saw the most crashes due to red-light running: the eastbound and westbound lanes of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard at Belcher Road, and the eastbound lanes of Chestnut Street at Fort Harrison Avenue.

The council has been divided over the idea of cameras since it began discussing them last year, with several stops and starts this year due to legal and political challenges.

Mayor Frank Hibbard and council members John Doran and Bill Jonson said the cameras could help deter dangerous driving and save lives.

Vice Mayor George Cretekos and council member Paul Gibson argued the cameras could potentially lead to more accidents, like those caused by drivers' sudden stops.

But the biggest disagreement Tuesday was over the contract itself and, in particular, the six-month pilot program the council asked staff to include.

It works like this: If, after six months, the cameras show that red-light violations have declined by 15 percent or more, the program will be automatically deemed a success and extended for a total of three years.

Left out of the equation, Cretekos said, were other possibilities. What if red light violations went down, but accidents or injuries went up?

The contract, officials responded, would still stand. And if city leaders wanted to cancel the camera program before the end of three years, they would need to pay RedFlex Traffic Systems up to $81,000 in fees.

"That doesn't sound like too good a contract," Gibson said. "(The number of red-light violations) doesn't seem like the right barometer to me. This is all about accidents, isn't it?"

Cretekos and Gibson wanted to renegotiate the contract and allow the city an "out" if the six months of camera use proved damaging. The rest of the council rejected that idea because it would require a new round of negotiations and more delays.

"I hate to sound trite, but (the fees are) less than we spend on a lot of consultants," Doran said. "This is a matter, seriously, of public safety."

Officials also said that determining which fender-benders happened because of the cameras and defining how many crashes the cameras prevented would be impossible.

"You have an out," Hibbard told the council. "It's called money."

Under the contract, Redflex will cover camera installation and maintenance and ask for $13,000 a month, paid by ticket revenue. If the tickets don't raise enough money, the city will not have to cover the gap

The city also will get $1,500 a month in ticket revenue to pay for two part-time city employees who will review camera footage and send tickets. Though officials say it's still too early to plan for expansion, the contract allows for monitoring of up to 30 intersection approaches, based on "mutual agreement" between Redflex and the city.

Last year, when the council passed an ordinance allowing the cameras, leaders expected to cover 10 intersections.

"Originally, we were just going to go ahead and do it," Hibbard said. "All directions, go whole hog. This way, it's been incremental. . . . It's not even a widespread test."

Hibbard, who spoke last year of the cameras as "Big Brother," has been the council's swing vote on the issue. But when he and camera booster Doran leave the council next year due to term limits, the support for cameras could change.

For now, most council members seem content to focus on the program's immediate future.

"Will it improve safety for citizens?" Jonson asked. "That's good enough for me."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

Clearwater approves red light cameras at two sites 11/16/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 16, 2011 7:35pm]
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