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Red light cameras and steep fines loom on St. Petersburg horizon

ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council spent an hour Thursday debating the merits of red light cameras.

They talked about whether the cameras really saved lives, the hefty $158 fine a ticket brings, the vendors who could manage the city's program. Then they voted to refer the matter to Mayor Bill Foster so he could propose a contract for them to approve next week.

What they didn't talk about, however, was that the contract was already written. The council had a week to review the same document it was giving Foster direction to draft.

Council chairman Jim Kennedy acknowledged the pro-forma nature of Thursday's discussion.

"Today was probably more procedural than substantive," Kennedy said.

Seven council members have already approved the program in previous meetings, with only Wengay Newton objecting to it. Until Thursday, however, it wasn't clear how the program would be managed.

Rather than bid out the project to vendors, Foster is proposing to award the contract to Scottsdale, Ariz.-based American Traffic Solutions, the country's largest provider of red light camera systems. ATS has installed 2,100 camera systems nationwide and has contracts with 20 Florida counties and 60 cities, including Gulfport, Kenneth City and South Pasadena in Pinellas County and Temple Terrace in Hillsborough County.

Foster, who made red light cameras a major part of his mayoral campaign in 2009, is proposing to adopt Miami's contract with ATS. Under those terms, the city would agree to pay ATS about $1.1 million a year for four years, with an option to extend the contract another four years.

People caught by the cameras will face a $158 fine. If they don't pay, their licenses could be suspended. The city still must decide which 19 intersections will get cameras.

Despite several studies that question whether the cameras reduce crashes at intersections, most council members have endorsed their use as a good way to promote public safety.

"This is long overdue," said council member Bill Dudley, a former driving instructor.

Only Newton has objected, saying that cameras are more a ploy to raise money than to make intersections any safer. He questioned the accuracy of how Foster is portraying city streets. Joe Kubicki, the city's director of transportation and parking, said people running red lights cause 35 accidents a month, resulting in eight injuries.

"If this is such a dire emergency, why are we just hearing about this now?" Newton said. "No one, not the police chief, not the fire chief, has come to me before to say this is a problem. This will create a hardship. People are going to lose their licenses so they won't be able to pay their taxes and go to work. I won't be supporting this."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 mvansickler@sptimes.com.

Red light cameras and steep fines loom on St. Petersburg horizon 04/14/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 15, 2011 12:52am]
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