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New Port Richey Council pushes for red-light cameras; mayor calls it 'junk science'

NEW PORT RICHEY — City Council members say their interest in red-light cameras is rooted in one main concern: public safety. The city's intersections, they say, are constantly threatened by accidents involving cars running red lights that the cameras could help prevent.

But numbers provided by the New Port Richey police tell a different story. Over the last five years, at six of the city's busiest intersections, officers have reported only seven crashes they say were caused by running a red light. Only one of those crashes, at U.S. 19 and Marine Parkway, led to an injury.

The statistics, released this month, led former City Manager Tom O'Neill to ask council members on Monday whether the cameras were "actually warranted."

But on Tuesday, the council made its most supportive move in favor of the cameras yet, voting 4-1 to order officials to bring back ideas on how, where and when they could be installed.

Mayor Scott McPherson, the dissenting vote, said council members' support of the cameras was driven mostly by money. Police Chief Jeff Harrington estimated red-light fines could bring profits of about $500,000 a year per intersection. This means one intersection would bring in a sum nearly big enough to balance the city's budget, still about $650,000 in the red.

"This is all about revenue," McPherson said. "I'm not saying you can't make an argument for safety. It's just that there's so much junk science out there that it's hard to know what to believe."

The statistics — built on police reports of the U.S. 19 crossroads at Trouble Creek Road, Floramar Terrace, Marine Parkway, Gulf Drive, Cross Bayou and Main Street — show a slim range of red-light accidents since 2005. The intersection with the most crashes, where U.S. 19 meets Gulf Drive, had three crashes, six red-light citations and zero injuries. The Main Street intersection — holding 70,000 vehicles a day, according to state records — saw one red-light-related crash.

"The whole safety component that is argued by advocates," McPherson said Wednesday, "doesn't seem to be supported by the data."

Harrington said the statistics ignore accidents where officers did not document a red-light violation but blamed a different factor, like reckless driving. For a more accurate representation of the dangers, he points to state transportation officials' "Highway Safety Matrix," which ranks cities based on fatal and injury crashes between 2004 and 2008. Among similar-sized cities, New Port Richey ranked worst for pedestrian accidents, sixth worst for accidents involving senior citizens and fifth worst overall. In the categories for speed-related accidents and aggressive-driving accidents, the city ranks among the least dangerous.

"I don't think there's enough information there" in the red-light statistics, Harrington said, "to reach any conclusions."

Council members said the statistics didn't change their mind on the cameras' potential benefits.

"Every one of these crashes is a bad thing," member Ginny Miller said Wednesday. "The technology is there, and there is very little downside to it. If people are obeying they law they have nothing to be worried about."

Deputy Mayor Rob Marlowe agreed, adding that critics' other complaint, that the cameras invaded privacy, was without much merit.

"The privacy issue is not nearly as much as one might think at first blush," Marlowe said. "At every one of those toll plazas, if you don't pay the toll, you get photographed."

Before the vote, Miller acknowledged critics' claims that the cameras were a money grab. Each red-light ticket costs drivers $158, $75 of which stays with the city.

"I'll be honest. It's in our budget. We are counting on some revenue from this," Miller said. "That will hopefully be a side benefit to allow us to expand on events."

Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6244.

New Port Richey Council pushes for red-light cameras; mayor calls it 'junk science' 08/18/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 18, 2010 11:35pm]

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