St. Pete City Council allows expansion of red-light camera program

Published Dec. 21, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — After more than three hours of debate Thursday, the City Council allowed Mayor Bill Foster to add red-light cameras to three more intersections.

The council did not have the power to stop Foster from expanding the controversial red-light camera program, but they could have dissolved the contract with the private vendor — ending cameras all together.

Council member Wengay Newton made a motion to kill the program, but none of his colleagues approved the measure for a full vote.

The lack of a vote allows Foster to expand the program from 22 to 31 cameras in 13 intersections. They are now at 10.

Foster implored the council to use common sense by keeping the cameras. The program, he said, is strictly about safety.

"Do you see careless, selfish drivers running red lights?" Foster said. "I do. It has changed my driving habits."

Council member Charlie Gerdes sought a resolution asking Foster to halt the expansion until staffers could examine more traffic data. The motion failed.

Critics accused the city of using the program to generate revenue. Proponents touted how the cameras have made streets safer by decreasing traffic accidents caused by drivers running red lights.

Some council members agreed with the mayor.

Council member Bill Dudley, a retired teacher and former driving instructor, grew agitated when critics bashed the program. He urged drivers to obey the law, saying: "I'm so ticked that we keep bringing this up."

The public took sides in the debate.

Mark Buoniconti traveled from Miami to voice support. He has been paralyzed from the neck down since 1985 after suffering a college football injury at the Citadel in South Carolina.

He touted how a few dollars from each violation goes to a program devoted to curing spinal cord and brain injuries in Florida. He stressed that serious injuries are caused by driving scofflaws.

"We're talking about people who run red lights," he said. "They're putting everyone's life in jeopardy."

David McKalip, a local neurosurgeon and activist, disagreed. He urged the council to cut spending instead of looking for money from cameras.

"This city is using its citizens as guinea pigs," McKalip said. "You need to look at the data, not the anecdotes."

The city installed red light cameras at 10 intersections in September 2011.

So far, cameras have caught 36,185 drivers running red lights in their first year of use. After paying the vendor and the state, St. Petersburg collected $707,226 for its coffers, about 17 percent less than expected.

Even with the 36,185 citations, crashes rose between November 2011 and October.

In that period, rear-end crashes jumped 44 percent from 64 to 92 in the 10 intersections with cameras. Rear-end crashes also climbed at crash-prone intersections without the cameras, but at a lesser rate of 19 percent, or from 52 crashes to 62.

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Total crashes jumped 10 percent in intersections with cameras.

Details on the wrecks were not included in a hefty report presented to the council last week. A city manager apologized to the council a day after the Tampa Bay Times reported the omission.

The staffers said the report focused only on intersections and approaches with cameras.

Staffers have stressed that they need at least three years of traffic data to provide the most comprehensive analysis of the program.

On that, they pointed to the 25 percent decrease in crashes caused by running red lights and injuries falling by 39 percent in the intersections with cameras.

Council member Karl Nurse wanted to see more data but said his sister was almost killed by someone who ran a red light.

"It's serious business," he said.

To support the program, Joe Kubicki, director of transportation and parking management, said the council only needed to look at the 36,185 citations issued by the cameras.

"To me, that borders on an epidemic of people running lights," he said, adding that police officers cannot catch all drivers running red lights.

Foster said the red-light cameras could be eliminated in coming years if motorists change their driving habits.

"I don't want it to be a long-term solution," he said.