TAMPA — In a contentious 4-3 vote, the Tampa City Council on Thursday approved five more years of red light cameras despite arguments by some members that they don’t make driving safer.
The issue has surfaced in the mayor’s race, with candidate David Straz promising to pull the plug on the cameras if elected. His opponent Jane Castor, a former Tampa police chief, has been supportive of the controversial program, which advocates say improves safety at intersections and opponents claim increases rear-end crashes and burdens poor people with large fines.
Council members largely broke along those lines at Thursday’s meeting. Chairman Frank Reddick and council member Yvonne Yolie Capin, both supporters of Straz, led the fight against renewing the contract for 54 cameras with American Traffic Solutions, which has been the city's vendor since Tampa debuted the program in 2011.
Reddick pulled the item off the consent agenda to force discussion and a roll-call vote on the issue. He expressed frustration that city officials struggled to explain the program’s details, a point echoed by his colleague Harry Cohen.
The real problem, Reddick said, isn't people running red lights, but a shortage of left-turn signals in the city.
"Here’s my challenge if you’re so gung-ho about red-light cameras. I challenge you to meet me at an intersection at a designated location and you won’t see people running red lights at any time," Reddick said.
Capin pointed to Tampa’s high rate of traffic fatalities as evidence that the cameras haven’t worked. Council member Guido Maniscalco, who has endorsed Castor, said he considers the program to be an example of government over reach. He also said the $158 ticket was too high of a burden. He voted against it.
Supporters, most of whom back Castor, said safety benefits outweigh the costs.
“The fact of the matter is this is preventable behavior,” Cohen said.
Mike Suarez, who hasn't endorsed anyone formally, said he had been involved in three major accidents at intersections.
“This is a violation that has to be stopped,” he said.
Suarez, Cohen, Charlie Miranda and Luis Viera voted to renew the contact.
The city pays American Traffic Solutions a fixed annual cost of $3,600 for each camera at most intersections once revenue exceeds the cost of the cameras. Last year, the city earned just under $3.3 million, while ATS earned $2.3 million.
The city receives $75 from each ticket. American Traffic Solutions, based in Mesa, Ariz., said their data showed that 82 percent of people who received a red-light camera ticket have not received another one.
In 2017, there were 79,437 tickets issued for red-light camera violations.
Many residents around the bay area have opposed red-light cameras since they started to appear about a decade ago. St. Petersburg ended its program in 2014. Clearwater has cameras at two high-volume intersections.
Red-light camera officials appeared well aware of the split opinion over the cameras, sprinkling community benefits into their responses to council members' questions.
ATS official David Mast said the program has contributed about $5 million to Tampa General Hospital's Level One Trauma facility over the least several years. He also touted new technology that would help police identify potential suspects quickly.
Viera appeared to be the swing vote. He acknowledged the cost of the ticket was a burden on low-income people — "that can be a bridge too far" — and studies have shown rear-end collisions go up at intersections where cameras are located. But studies also show fatalities increase after cameras are removed from intersections, he said.
"A ticket like that is a real burden on you, but it's a substantially bigger burden is if you're a victim of a crash," Viera said.