Red-light cameras: A tale of two Tampa Bay cities

Published March 19, 2014

St. Petersburg is going through a messy breakup with those red light cameras the City Council voted in three years ago to make dangerous intersections safer.

Meanwhile in Tampa, sister city a bridge away, they're talking of renewing their commitment and keeping those cameras through 2016.

It is a tale of two cities, of traffic scofflaws, politics and, just so we don't forget, public safety, too.

No question, things went south in St. Petersburg. Controversy simmered and questions were raised on issues like yellow-light times, and in the end some said a program to stop risky drivers and even save lives surely could have been run better than this. But the big criticism has always been that red light cameras are nothing but a money grab, a cash cow to be milked for all they are worth — and that collaboration between a city and a private camera company getting a cut from that $158 ticket is suspect at best.

The state gets $83 per ticket, but St. Petersburg's general fund still got $841,862 over the first two years.

This month the St. Petersburg City Council — one with new faces on it — voted 6-2 to get rid of its 22 cameras.

Across the water, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn says he does not pretend to know St. Petersburg politics, but for his money, the cameras are working in his town.

In the first year, crashes at Tampa intersections equipped with red light cameras dropped 11 percent, and 33 percent the second year. Police gave out 10,000 fewer red light tickets and crashes were down in 2013 compared with 2012. Which sure sounds to me like motorists governing themselves accordingly.

And yes, in 2013, the city made $1.64 million. Tampa, which has 51 cameras, also contributed $1.1 million in ticket money to state trauma and spinal trauma funds.

Up in Tallahassee, a bill would repeal the law that allows such cameras. Wouldn't legislators do better tweaking what flaws they see — like a lack of consistency in how it's applied statewide — to a law intended to save lives?

On Thursday, the Tampa City Council decides whether to keep the cameras going for two more years. Red light cameras passed three years ago on a close 4-3 vote. "No" votes came for a thoughtful reason: Council members said they wanted the money earmarked for transportation fixes — like sidewalks and pedestrian and bicycling improvements, council member Yvonne Yolie Capin said this week — and not into the city's general fund. It may be a close vote again.

Pro-camera council member Harry Cohen believes they got results. "You can't count all the accidents that might have happened," he says.

Are red light cameras really any different from cops armed with radar guns on a stretches of road notorious for speeding? And won't a lot of those drivers likely think twice after the bite of a ticket?

As long as cameras are motivated by safety and run on the up-and-up — with properly timed yellow lights and tickets only for blatant light runners, as is Tampa's policy — I say this about that whole cash-cow, money-grab argument:

So what.

Don't blast through a red light, risking you and me and people we both care about, and those cameras won't cost you a dime.

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