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One year, 56 red-light cameras, $10 million in tickets

The cameras have lost favor across the country, but Tampa leaders praise the city’s program as a useful tool to curb dangerous driving
 
Motorists drive past a sign indicating photo enforcement at the South Westshore Boulevard and West Gandy Boulevard intersection in Tampa on Oct. 31.
Motorists drive past a sign indicating photo enforcement at the South Westshore Boulevard and West Gandy Boulevard intersection in Tampa on Oct. 31. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times (2022) ]
Published Feb. 20, 2023|Updated Feb. 21, 2023

If you drive through a red light at one of Tampa’s 23 monitored traffic intersections, a camera will snap, a police officer will review the footage and you will likely receive a photograph of your car breaking the law, as well as a $158 fine.

According to public records, the city’s 56 cameras captured more than 100,600 offenses last year — and at least $10.4 million in revenue, split between the state, the city, hospitals, a Miami-based nonprofit and the camera vendor.

The Tampa cameras make up the lion’s share of the 79 red-light cameras spread across Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas intersections.

The city remains a proponent of the cameras, praising the technology for helping law enforcement reduce dangerous driving. Local transportation leaders, police departments and the companies that make the equipment say the cameras keep drivers vigilant.

“The reason for their existence is to improve safety at intersections,” said Vik Bhide, Tampa’s director of mobility. The cameras are part of the city’s broader effort to use technology to make our roads safer, he said.

Meanwhile, the number of red-light camera enforcement programs has declined across Florida and around the country. The programs have long faced political backlash, and examples of secretive enforcement and — such as in New York City, where camera locations are not signposted — have lent credence to accusations that the programs are about revenue, not safety.

In Tampa, the city receives $75 from each ticket, a portion of which covers operational costs. Camera provider Verra Mobility, based in Mesa, Arizona, collects a fixed fee of $3,600 per month for each camera once revenue exceeds the cost of the cameras.

Florida’s Department of Revenue receives the remaining $83. Most of that, $70, goes straight into the department’s general fund. $3 funds brain and spinal cord research at the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. And the rest goes to trauma centers, with Tampa General Hospital collecting roughly $500,000 to $600,000 per year, according to a hospital spokesperson.

Since red-light cameras arrived in Tampa in 2011, the program has generated more than $84.3 million from tickets through the end of 2022 — about a quarter of which went to Verra Mobility, according to public records.

Last year, the city earned about $3.1 million in profit from the cameras. Verra Mobility received $1.8 million and the Florida Department of Revenue received $5.4 million.

Tampa funnels a quarter of the funds generated from its program toward transportation safety improvements, such as signal repairs and bike lane markings, Bhide said. New crosswalks at Edison and Shaw elementary schools were funded by the cameras, as well as flashing beacons at intersections across the city.

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Little oversight

The Tampa metro area is home to some of the highest rates of pedestrian and cyclist injuries in the country. Mayor Jane Castor has committed the city to Vision Zero, an international pledge to eliminate traffic fatalities. Hillsborough County traffic deaths jumped to an all-time high in 2021.

“I know what it’s like to knock on people’s doors to tell them a family member has been killed by an unsafe driver in Tampa, and I am committed to doing all we can to make Tampa safer for our residents,” said Castor, a former Tampa police chief.

“Red-light cameras are a valuable tool in that mission, and there is a simple solution for those who dislike or worry about them: Don’t run red lights,” she said.

The city’s cameras are stationed around major thoroughfares, including Florida and Hillsborough avenues and Dale Mabry Highway. Crashes resulting from red-light violations can be particularly dangerous because they often cause T-bone collisions with pedestrians and cyclists at speed.

Traffic crash data is a “very important” factor when selecting which intersections to install red-light cameras, according to a survey Tampa police completed in 2022 for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

The city has never conducted an independent red-light camera analysis, according to the survey response.

There is no statewide oversight of red-light camera programs, but the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles asks jurisdictions to complete a self-reported spreadsheet and survey annually.

Verra Mobility provides photo enforcement services in cities across the country, including Washington, D.C., New Orleans and Orlando. The company had programs in 29 areas across Florida in 2021-2022.

Approximately 90% of people who received a Tampa red-light camera ticket have not received another, according to a company spokesperson.

Not all captured footage becomes violations. In the program’s first decade of operation, an average of 70% of potential violations sent to police for review resulted in citations — ranging from about 63% in 2014 to 97% in 2021, according to public data.

Dwindling numbers nationwide

The use of red-light cameras in the United States started in New York City 30 years ago. Other state and city governments gradually adopted them, and in 2022 there were 338 communities nationwide that operated red-light camera programs, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

In 2020, 928 people nationwide were killed in crashes that involved running a red light, half of them pedestrians, bicyclists and people in other vehicles, the insurance institute said. An additional 116,000 people were injured.

But the total number of camera programs has declined in the past decade, with more programs discontinued than initiated.

In 2019, Gov. Greg Abbott made Texas the latest state to ban red-light cameras. It joined at least seven other states — Maine, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, South Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia — that already had statutes prohibiting them.

Tara Gill, a senior director at D.C.-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, attributed the decline to issues with implementation. The politicization of their placement and the lack of education about the cameras’ ties to road safety has stirred distrust, she said.

“There is a tremendous amount of research showing that these systems are effective,” she said.

A series of studies by the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, for example, has found red-light violations are reduced by about 40% where cameras have been introduced.

“We recognize police cannot be at all incidents at all time,” Gill said, adding that automated traffic enforcement can free up law enforcement resources.

Dwindling numbers in Tampa Bay

Tampa’s commitment to the cameras is something of an anomaly in the region. In unincorporated Hillsborough County, there are 10 cameras. In Pinellas County, there are three, all located in Clearwater. And in Pasco County there are 10.

St. Petersburg elected officials voted to end its program in 2014. Mayor Rick Kriseman, a longtime camera advocate, said at the time that his position on the cameras is the same — that they work — but fewer tickets being issued showed the program changed behavior. He’d said the city would get rid of the program if it no longer paid for itself, which officials projected would happen soon anyway.

Jeff Brandes, former Senate transportation chairperson and Republican senator representing Pinellas, has long referred to the cameras as a “backdoor tax increase,” filing legislation seeking to ban their use. He helped launch a method for Floridians to contest the tickets at the local level in 2012, calling them “highly dubious.”

Melissa Wandall, a nationally recognized advocate for street safety, worked with the Florida Legislature to implement the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act, named after her husband, who was killed by a red-light runner in Manatee County nearly 20 years ago, 19 days before their daughter was born. The statewide legislation has given cities and counties the power to use red-light cameras to issue civil citations since 2010.

But the Manatee Board of County Commissioners voted in May not to renew the contract with their red-light camera vendor after issuing tickets for a decade. It expired late last year.

“They’ve taken away a tool and politicized it when it shouldn’t be,” Wandall said. “Good people are making very bad decisions on our roadways. We need every tool, every policymaker, every advocate, every law enforcement officer and the Florida Department of Transportation to come together to work on reducing heartache on our roads.”

Traffic lights turn red at South Westshore Boulevard and West Gandy Boulevard in Tampa on Oct. 31. Tampa’s commitment to red-light cameras is something of an anomaly in the region. In unincorporated Hillsborough County, there are 10 cameras. In Pinellas County, there are three, all located in Clearwater. And in Pasco County there are 10.
Traffic lights turn red at South Westshore Boulevard and West Gandy Boulevard in Tampa on Oct. 31. Tampa’s commitment to red-light cameras is something of an anomaly in the region. In unincorporated Hillsborough County, there are 10 cameras. In Pinellas County, there are three, all located in Clearwater. And in Pasco County there are 10. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times (2022) ]