Red-light cameras may be more trouble than they are worth. What started as a discussion about improving traffic safety and preventing accidents has been exposed as a profitmaking center of questionable legality for cash-strapped Florida counties and cities. The least St. Petersburg and other local governments can do is be honest about their intent and drop the pretense that cash isn't driving their decisions.
The cameras are under assault on all sides. Earlier this year, the Legislature considered repealing their use and likely will reconsider the issue next year. As defense attorneys poke holes in the system, it's uncertain that Florida courts will even deem their use legal.
In St. Petersburg — despite City Council promises that safety will drive decisions about placing 20 cameras — the intersection selection process by Mayor Bill Foster's team is tainted by fiscal concerns. As St. Petersburg Times' reporter Michael Van Sickler reported Wednesday, the city wants the cameras to generate at least 10 paid tickets a day to help ensure they make money. City officials are looking past a paid consultant's list of intersections where red-light runners are believed to cause the most damage to people and property to consider safer intersections that are believed to have more red-light violators.
But even if St. Petersburg positions its cameras well for generating tickets, it has no guarantee it will actually collect the fines. As Times' reporter Stephen Nohlgren reported last month, other Florida governments that started down this path earlier are finding the golden goose is looks more like one big goose egg. Miami-Dade County — which uses the same vendor, American Traffic Solutions, as St. Petersburg — expected to bring in $800,000 per month, but collections so far are running a quarter of that amount. In Fort Lauderdale, which also uses ATS, ticket revenue has plummeted from an anticipated 13 paying tickets per camera per day to five tickets. The city went from anticipating $3 million in net annual revenues to $150,000, in part because of the unanticipated costs of having police aides who review the red-light videos spend so much time testifying in court.
Defense lawyers are successfully finding legal flaws in the way camera operators identify and ticket car owners, which only encourages more offenders to go to court. And they're raising constitutional questions that could take years to be fully resolved. Recently a Broward County traffic judge ruled that police officers can no longer ticket drivers for running red lights because the fine and punishment for an officer-written ticket is higher than for the same offense caught by a red-light camera. This difference, the judge said, violates state and federal guarantees of equal protection.
Red-light cameras aren't the simple technological answer to safer roads that their supporters initially claimed. Nor are they a surefire antidote for government budgets weathering historic drops in property tax collections. St. Petersburg and other cities should consider whether the time and expense are worth it — and level with taxpayers that they are more interested in generating cash than making streets safer.