Red-Light Cameras Spark Debate in Texas Cities

by: Theodore Kim

Red-light cameras, which have split the driving public like few other topics of the road, are reaching a public opinion crossroads.

Texas cities have collected more than $103 million in fines since a revised red-light camera law took effect in 2007. Houston has collected the largest chunk: some $24 million through May, state figures show.

Cities insist the cameras have cut intersection accidents and saved lives. But the rising revenue totals have fueled a public backlash and reinforced perceptions that their main impetus is money.

Lawmakers in Maine, Mississippi and Montana banned red-light cameras last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Six other states recently considered similar proposals.

In Texas, College Station voters last fall forced their city to take down its cameras. Houston opponents say they have enough petition signatures to put the cameras to a vote this fall. And the Texas House of Representatives last year passed a measure that would have phased out the cameras. Though it failed in the Senate, camera opponents say they plan to try again.

“There is a backlash, for sure,” said state Rep. Solomon Ortiz Jr., D-Corpus Christi, who co-sponsored the anti-camera push. “City budgeters are counting on these fines as a revenue stream and simply using the argument of safety as cover.”

Safety claims

That sentiment clashes with the opinion of many engineers and city officials who say the cameras have, unequivocally, improved intersection safety.

The cameras capture images, and sometimes video, of drivers running red lights. The images are vetted by the camera company and, ultimately, by police. Most Texas cities charge civil fines of between $75 and $100 per violation. More studies than not suggest the cameras work, at least to some degree.

“They’ve performed much better than I ever imagined,” said Elizabeth Ramirez, chief traffic engineer for Dallas. The city has witnessed declines in red-light accidents at nearly every one of its 59 camera-equipped intersections since the first wave launched in January 2007, she said.

While camera critics dispute the safety data, the money generated has raised even more questions and intrigue, especially as collections have pushed into the tens of millions. A 2007 state law requires cities to set aside half of all profits to help fund regional trauma care centers. Most cities use their share for traffic safety and enforcement efforts.

Houston police Sgt. Michael Muench, who oversees that city’s red-light camera program, said his department has plowed all revenues into crash-scene investigation equipment, extra traffic patrols, radar guns and other traffic-related improvements. “So far, it’s working,” Muench said. Critics point to large disparities in the profits cities generate as evidence that some are just out to make a buck.

“In College Station, cameras were not put at the most dangerous intersections, but the most profitable ones,” said Jim Ash, a sales representative who began the petition drive to take down the cameras there.

In fact, the contracts that cities have with camera vendors are the biggest factor in whether or not a city makes money, according to an analysis of state figures and the vendor agreements of about a dozen Texas cities. Cities do not purchase, operate and maintain the equipment outright. Rather, they rent the cameras from vendors under negotiated terms. Houston’s $24 million haul since 2007 is more than triple the total fines collected by Dallas, according to figures from the state comptroller’s office. And in the last two years, Dallas’ program has cost more to run than Houston’s.

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