ST. PETERSBURG — A day before a scheduled council vote on whether to end the city's controversial red light camera program, Mayor Rick Kriseman said he is likely to remove the cameras in September if they are no longer profitable.
Just before 5 p.m. Wednesday, communications director Ben Kirby released a memo the mayor wrote to the City Council.
"At the current pace, the revenues are expected to fall below the costs of the program in September of this year," Kriseman wrote. "Should the program continue beyond tomorrow's City Council meeting, and should red light running behavior continue to improve resulting in revenues which fall below the costs of the program, we will remove cameras at that time."
The timing of Kriseman's announcement seemed deliberate.
Council member Wengay Newton plans to ask his colleagues today to immediately end the contract with the Arizona-based vendor American Traffic Solutions. Newton also wants the city to refund money to about 2,500 drivers who got tickets at intersections with incorrect yellow light timing.
Newton has tried many times to get rid of the cameras, which the city installed in the latter half of 2011. But unlike previous instances, he appears to have more council support on his side.
Newton said it is obvious Kriseman was trying to "save face," but applauded the mayor for "doing the right thing."
"It was definitely headed down," Newton said Wednesday evening.
Kriseman supports the cameras and has rejected earlier calls for refunds. He and city staff said the cameras are working, changing behaviors and making streets safer.
They have also said the problems with yellow light timing, exposed by local camera critic Matt Florell, are fixed and don't amount to fatal flaws with the overall program.
"These cameras have changed the culture on our roads," Kriseman wrote.
Officials previously said they would evaluate the program after three years, but Florell has been poking holes in city reports about the cameras almost from the beginning.
He told city staff a few months ago he discovered the yellow light timing at First Avenue S and 34th Street was too short. Officials had not factored in the slope of the road in their formulas for setting the time. After some disagreement, the city ultimately fixed the timing there and at two other intersections.
Newton already has three other council members on his side. In the last week, council member Karl Nurse, who has supported the cameras in the past, expressed doubts they would exist past September.
His vote today could give Newton a majority.
Nurse said he's willing to let the program die whenever it stops paying for itself, which he suspects will be sooner rather than later.
"This is the right path," he said. "Sometimes you declare victory and wind down the program."
Newton said there is no need to wait until September.
"I'm not pulling my items" from the council agenda, he said. "I'm not going six more months. I said all the time — this was about money."
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Kriseman, in his memo, said after the program's conclusion, staff will continue to monitor crash data. He also left open the possibility that cameras could come back.
"I have also asked staff to monitor new, innovative technologies which could make our city streets safer," Kriseman wrote. "Should we see a need to reinstitute the cameras in the future, we will do so."
Council Chairman Bill Dudley, a camera supporter, said he thinks the city should continue the program for three years, as planned.
A lot of time and resources have been spent on the issue, Dudley said. He pointed to other cities, including Tampa, which recently expanded their camera programs and didn't face as much scrutiny.
"Everybody knows it is illegal to run a red light," he said. "We're spending a lot of staff time on this. It gets old after a while. . . . We have a lot of other issues."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643. Follow her on Twitter @cornandpotatoes.