In the name of traffic safety, Spokane is about to join the growing number of U.S. cities enjoying cash windfalls from catching red-light runners with sophisticated intersection cameras.
Council members will decide Monday whether to approve a contract worth more than $300,000 a year with an Arizona company that would operate the program. If the council votes to proceed, Spokane will join a growing debate over use of “photo-red” cameras.
Supporters say the cameras enhance traffic safety by discouraging motorists from trying to zip through intersections after lights turn red – a leading cause of dangerous side-impact collisions. Registered owners of vehicles caught running red lights would be mailed $124 fines, giving the cash-strapped city a potential windfall of half a million dollars a year.
Critics argue that traffic safety has little to do with photo-red programs, citing studies showing that while the number of side-impact collisions often decrease, rear-end crashes increase – ostensibly as motorists slam on the brakes as soon as traffic lights turn yellow. The primary reason cities embrace photo-red programs, they contend, is the cash that comes rolling in, generally with no corresponding reduction in other municipal taxes.
Both sides have ample studies and statistics to back up their positions, though independent researchers have found at least a minimal safety benefit.
City leaders downplay any suggestion the program could become an unchecked cash cow.
A Spokesman-Review examination of the city’s plans, along with the first-year results of Seattle’s photo-red program, indicate Spokane could collect as much as $500,000 in new revenue even after accounting for operating costs and other variables, such ignored and unpaid tickets.
City officials predict it would be far less than that, perhaps $190,000.
Spokane police Sgt. Eric Olsen, who has led the effort to bring photo-red to town, said that while the program might make money, that’s not what it’s designed to do. He said crashes caused by drivers running red lights increased by 12 percent in Spokane in 2006, and that injuries from those crashes increased by 17 percent.
“If collisions go down, where is the downside?” Olsen said.
Red light cameras help lower side impact or right-angle collisions, said Robert Seyfried, the transportation engineering director at Northwestern University’s Center for Public Safety. And though the cameras often lead to more rear-end crashes, those accidents don’t cause as many injuries, he said.
A 2005 federal study compared crash data before and after installing cameras in seven jurisdictions. While collisions caused by drivers running red lights decreased by 379 with the cameras, rear-end crashes increased by 375, the study found. Researchers concluded that the cameras can be beneficial because side-impact crashes tend to be more severe.
Washington voters could get a chance to weigh in this fall. Tax-cutting advocate Tim Eyman has targeted profits cities make from red-light camera programs in his latest initiative attempt. His proposal, Initiative 985, would force profits made by camera enforcement to go to the state to pay for easing traffic congestion.
“One of the fringe benefits of I-985 is to remove the profit motive for cities to put up red light traffic cameras,” Eyman wrote in an e-mail to supporters. “There’s no end to this cash cow if they have the current profit motive.”
Spokane officials contend they’ve already addressed many of the issues Eyman raises. Officials point to rules approved by the City Council last year that require any profits from camera enforcement to pay for traffic safety improvements. The first $150,000 must be used for “traffic calming” projects such as lane striping and road narrowing. Money generated beyond that would go to bike lanes, pedestrian safety and better traffic signs around schools.
Last year, only Councilman Bob Apple opposed the camera enforcement. One of three new council members, Michael Allen, said he also opposes it – at least how it’s proposed.
Spokane’s program would start with six cameras. American Traffic Solutions requires that each camera be used at locations that average at least eight violations a day. That’s to ensure the cameras generate enough money to pay for company fees. Under the proposed contract, ATS would charge $4,600 a month for each camera that photographs one approach to an intersection.
The camera fees would be paid entirely from citation revenue. Olsen’s estimate that the city would take in $190,000 a year is based on the amount collected in Auburn, Wash., for that city’s program.
Last November, about a dozen ATS cameras were placed at five Spokane intersections for eight hours to determine which locations should be monitored. A camera at Mission and Greene spotted 12 violations. One at Division and Sprague found 10. Three cameras at Sprague and Browne caught a total of eight violations. Olsen said more tests will be completed before enforcement begins.
Not all red light enforcement programs have been deemed successes. Earlier this month, the Lubbock, Texas, City Council voted to stop using the cameras.
“The company couldn’t prove the efficacy of the cameras,” said Lubbock Mayor Pro-Tem Jim Gilbreath, who voted to remove the cameras after earlier supporting them. “Based on six months worth of data, they didn’t work. Accidents went up.”
In Seattle, accident numbers didn’t fall under the city’s camera program, but injuries were down in the first year. Citing that, Mayor Greg Nickels recently announced the program would expand by 24 cameras.
In the first year Seattle had red light cameras, starting in July 2006, six cameras generated more than $1 million in fines. After subtracting expenses, the city earned about $600,000, said Michael Quinn, who runs the program.