Editorial: Cash dispute kills red-light cameras

Published March 21, 2014

The Tampa City Council acted responsibly Thursday by killing (at least for now) the city's red-light camera program. Red-light cameras have an uneven track record across the state, and while Tampa's early experience is better than elsewhere, council members are right that their use should be tied to public safety. Mayor Bob Buckhorn needs to accommodate this concern if he wants to keep the program alive.

The council voted 4-3 against renewing the contract for the two-year old program. That should not have taken anyone by surprise; the council had been split on the program from the start, with opponents criticizing the arrangement for failing to pump money directly into street and pedestrian safety projects.

Cameras are an imperfect way of addressing red-light runners, and some cities see them more as cash cows than as public safety tools. The St. Petersburg City Council voted 6-2 this month to kill that city's red-light cameras after the overall number of crashes at those sites rose during the first year. Tampa has had different results: Police said crashes at intersections with cameras dropped 11 percent the first year, and another 33 percent in the second.

Tampa City Council members, though, have for years called on the city to put part of its $75 share of the $158 traffic tickets directly into street safety improvements. The city puts the proceeds into the general fund, which pays for general operations from police and fire to the parks. The mayor should have seen this coming, and his administration should have at least shown an interest on Thursday in meeting the council halfway. Buckhorn's failure to bargain was a power play that backfired, earning him a loss he could have avoided and causing a rift with the council on a relatively minor matter.

All four council members who voted against the plan Thursday said they are open to changing their votes if Buckhorn dedicates some camera revenue directly to public safety. That's a fair offer. Buckhorn has a strong record on street spending — committing millions for traffic and pedestrian safety projects. But council members want the red-light money to go above and beyond current spending.

The money would be well spent, and the mayor has a practical need in his third year in office to get over this standoff with the council. For better or worse, the two sides largely agree that the cameras are serving a purpose. To split over the money underscores the critics' concern that cameras are about making money, not public safety. That's a debate that still needs an airing statewide.