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Tampa considers renewing its red light camera program

Tampa police say crashes at intersections with cameras have fallen. In St. Petersburg, it has been a different story.
Published Mar. 18, 2014

TAMPA — While St. Petersburg is pulling the plug on its red light cameras, Tampa police want to keep theirs at least two more years.

"We want to keep the program because it works," police Chief Jane Castor said Monday. "Crashes are down, and so are citations. We are changing driving habits and ultimately making our roadways safer."

So on Thursday, the Tampa City Council will be asked to renew its red light camera contract to April 2016.

It is shaping up to be another close vote. In 2011, the same council voted 4-3 to start the program.

At the time, Charlie Miranda, Yvonne Yolie Capin and Frank Reddick wanted revenue from the cameras to go toward intersection and transportation improvements, not into the city's general fund.

They still do.

"What I'm against is the money not going to fix the intersections," Miranda said.

While Capin says drivers who run red lights — like that pickup truck that swerved around her and accelerated when she slowed for a stoplight on S Dale Mabry Highway — put others in danger, she said the public largely perceives the program as a "cash cow."

Tampa has 51 cameras trained on 21 intersections. Violations are issued to the owner of the vehicle photographed running the light. The fines are $158, with $75 going to the city and $83 to the state.

Under its contract with American Traffic Solutions of Tempe, Ariz., the city pays the company $3,750 per camera per month. Cameras are removed if they do not record an average of 2.5 infractions per day for three months.

A year after the city installed red light cameras at 14 initial intersections, crashes at those intersections were down nearly 11 percent, according to police statistics. In the second year, the number of crashes fell 33 percent more.

In contrast, St. Petersburg saw the total number of crashes jump 10 percent at the 10 intersections with cameras during the program's first year.

The city pays ATS out of its share of the fines. If revenues fail to cover operating costs, city officials say ATS will absorb the shortfall.

"For how long?" Reddick wondered. "For one year? For two years?"

If red light camera revenues consistently fall short of projections, he said, there's no way the city can afford to keep a contract in place when it is looking at a revenue shortfall of $10 million or more for its 2015 budget.

Generally, the numbers of citations issued and fines collected have fallen even as the city and ATS have added cameras.

During the city's 2013 fiscal year, the number of cameras increased by more than 25 percent, from 33 to 42. Meanwhile, the number of citations issued dropped from a monthly peak of 6,226 in April to 4,913 in September, the end of the fiscal year. The city's net revenues for the year were nearly $1.64 million. Monthly revenues rose as more cameras were added, then fell later.

But police say statistics also show that they don't try to drive up fines by issuing every ticket they can. During 2013, cameras photographed 80,806 potential violations, but police who reviewed the images authorized 60,966 tickets — an approval rate of about 75 percent.

"Only the most blatant violations generate a citation," police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said.

Tampa's move to renew its program comes as state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is sponsoring a bill to repeal the law authorizing the cameras.

Statewide, 74 municipalities and five counties, mostly in South and Central Florida, have red light cameras trained on a total of 922 intersections, according to a recent study from the state Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.

Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403, Danielson@tampabay.com or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.

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