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Clearwater puts red-light camera plan on hold

CLEARWATER — The city's red-light camera plan is all but dead, spiked by leaders' worries over legal and political push back.

The City Council will vote on Thursday to put its plan on ice until challenges by lawyers and state legislators are resolved.

The council's sudden change makes Clearwater the biggest city in Tampa Bay to get cold feet. St. Petersburg and Tampa will likely have red-light cameras rolling by year's end. Six other local cities and Hillsborough County are pushing ahead.

In recent weeks, Clearwater appeared close to installing eight cameras above Belcher Road intersections at Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and Sunset Point Road. Police and traffic officials met with camera companies Redflex, American Traffic Solutions and Gatso last month.

But Clearwater staffers on Monday recommended that the council postpone the program due to worries over the systems' uncertainty, which has caused extra work and "confusion over the (cameras') effectiveness."

"It does not make any sense for us to wade into muddy waters," council member Paul Gibson said. "This is one of those times where I don't want to be first."

The council voted to pursue a plan in December but grew camera-shy in March as statewide opposition grew. Attorneys across Florida fought the $158 red-light camera tickets in court, winning key dismissals. A state bill to ban the cameras passed in the House but died in the Senate.

The city sought proposals for the cameras in April after the council sided with member John Doran, its biggest camera advocate. In 2008, Doran accidentally ran a red light and injured another driver in a crash he called a "wakeup call."

But Doran said Monday that the city "may never be ready" for the cameras, even with his support. His term ends next year, leaving the plan's future to members like Gibson and Vice Mayor George Cretekos, who have voiced stiff opposition.

"You know who Sisyphus is, right?" Doran said, citing the Greek mythological king doomed to forever roll a boulder uphill. "They've got their own hills. I've got mine."

Supporters say the cameras can save lives and let officers focus attention elsewhere. Camera companies typically install the devices for free and divvy the traffic fine money with the host cities.

Clearwater streets had 32 deadly crashes in 2009 and 2010, two of which were caused by red-light violations, police records show. Neither crash happened at the intersections where cameras were proposed.

Opponents have seized upon conflicting safety studies and shaky legal precedent to call the cameras into question. In May, a Broward County judge ruled that police officers couldn't ticket red-light runners because their fines, about $100 costlier than a camera's, meant different punishments for the same crime.

The legal questions haven't stopped everyone. Crews will install about 40 cameras over St. Petersburg and Tampa streets in the coming months. The cameras are already rolling in Hillsborough County, Gulfport, South Pasadena, Kenneth City, Temple Terrace, New Port Richey and Port Richey.

Cities putting the brakes on the cameras are much more uncommon. St. Pete Beach abandoned its fledgling camera plan in May. Brooksville eliminated its system last year but has considered bringing it back.

Clearwater traffic operations manager Paul Bertels still believes the cameras hold merit as reminders to follow the law. In the meantime, he said, drivers will have to learn that lesson in a more traditional way.

"There tends to be a little bit of nervousness associated with being pulled over immediately by a police officer with the red and blue lights flashing, and he has a gun," Bertels said. "That tends to have a great deal of effect."

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

Clearwater puts red-light camera plan on hold 07/19/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 22, 2011 10:15am]
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