TAMPA — Bucking a trend that's swept up several other Tampa Bay area cities, the Tampa City Council voted 4-to-3 Thursday to keep the city's red-light camera program for two more years.
With the vote, the city's contract with American Traffic Solutions will go through Oct. 31, 2018. If the city wants to keep the cameras on beyond that, it must go out for bids again.
For supporters, the decision came down to safety. Though there are statistics on both sides of the question of what impact red-light cameras have on crashes, several council members said they believe the technology gives drivers good reason to take fewer risks.
"We can't have a police officer at every corner. This is the next best way," said council member Lisa Montelione, who voted for the extension with Mike Suarez, Charlie Miranda and Harry Cohen.
"Being No. 2 in the entire country for pedestrian and bicyclist deaths" — a distinction that belongs to the Tampa Bay metro area — "I think that anytime we can implement a safety measure that can save even one life ... is something that we need to do," she said.
"It's my view that these cameras do act as something of a deterrent," said Cohen, who noted he once got a ticket from an officer, and now he thinks about it every time he approaches that particular intersection. "They slow people down. They make people more aware."
The three council members who voted against the program said it was driven by money, not safety.
"A fraud," council member Frank Reddick said of the program. He got a $158 red-light camera ticket and said he could have fought it but chose not to appeal. "It's a cash cow for the vendor and a cash cow for the city."
Yvonne Yolie Capin said Mayor Bob Buckhorn's administration had not provided crash statistics to show that the program was achieving the goal of making traffic safer. Guido Maniscalco said the fines were a hardship on those who could least afford them.
"That's a lot of money to hard-working people who are minimum wage, that are working multiple jobs, single parents trying to raise their kids," he said.
Tampa launched its program in 2011 and now has 54 cameras installed at 21 intersections. Three of those intersections, however, are off-line because of road construction.
The contract extension with American Traffic Solutions, based in Arizona, boosts the city's share of revenue from fines by an estimated $75,000 a year.
The city is on pace to receive $2 million during this budget year as a result of issuing a projected 65,000 violations. Citations carry fines of $158, of which the city gets $83. It uses that money to pay for the program.
The new contract lowers the rate Tampa pays to American Traffic Solutions for the cameras. Currently, that's $3,750 to $4,400 per month per camera.
Now the city will pay no more than $4,050 per month — a rate city officials say puts Tampa's costs among the lowest in Florida. By comparison, according to the company, Hillsborough County just extended its contract and got a reduced price of $4,250 per camera.
The contract also gives the city more protection from lawsuits by requiring American Traffic Solutions to provide more legal representation if the city is taken to court by drivers challenging the program. That's something the company has not done anywhere else, American Traffic Solutions vice president Jason Norton told the council.
In recent years, St. Petersburg, Kenneth City, Temple Terrace, Oldsmar and Gulfport are among cities that have dropped their red-light camera programs.
Matt Florell, who worked to persuade St. Petersburg to switch off its cameras, told the council he's spent five years scrutinizing reports, studies, hundreds of crash reports and red light camera videos, plus ticket data for tens of thousands of citations.
"Without a doubt," Florell said, "red-light cameras do not make roads safer."
He cited a Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles study from January showing an increase of nearly 15 percent in intersection crashes after the cameras were installed. The study looked at eight Tampa intersections. There, rear-end crashes rose from 17 to 26 after cameras were switched on — a 52 percent increase — and Florell said the state also found an increase in T-bone crashes and fatalities at monitored intersections.
In response, Norton said the numbers can be affected by increases in traffic volume, as well as by a change in the way police report where crashes take place.
Florell also said most of the revenue goes to state government in Tallahassee or the vendor.
"The bottom line is this: We're sending millions of dollars per year out of our community for a safety program that is making us less safe," he said.
But Sulphur Springs resident Ed Tillou, a City Council regular and an advocate for a variety of environmental and health-related causes, said the city should keep the program and even expand it to a couple of especially hazardous intersections.
"I am a pedestrian," he told the council. "I am on a lot of these streets, and it was a vast change once those red-light cameras went into effect. I don't know what the statistics are. I'm just out on the ground, and I see the difference."
Contact Richard Danielson at email@example.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times