News of another city dropping its red-light camera program may not seem like a big deal these days. It is, however, when that city is in the proverbial belly of the red-light camera beast.
We’re talking about Tallahassee, the capital of Florida, home to dozens of camera company lobbyists and control center for a massive red-light camera network that has plagued drivers for years. Officials there recently announced they will not renew the city’s contract with camera vendor Xerox after it expires in August. According to a city spokesperson, the cameras have been so successful in reducing violations that they’re no longer financially viable. Nice try.
True, violations have plummeted, by 90 percent at some intersections, but the reason has nothing to do with the cameras. It’s because the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) mandated longer yellow-light times in 2013. This came after investigative reporter Noah Pransky with WTSP in Tampa Bay broke the story that FDOT had previously ordered cities to reduce yellow-light times.
Why would they do such a thing? Could it be that the state rakes off more than half of the camera revenue generated statewide, for a total of $50-$60 million annually? Thankfully, Pransky’s series of in-depth reports put an end to that. In Tallahassee, red-light cameras had generated $6.3 million through December 2013, with $3 million going to the state, $2.8 million to the vendor and less than $500,000 to the city’s general fund.
The impact of longer yellow-light times has rippled throughout the state. According to Pransky, more than a dozen Florida cities have shut down their red-light camera programs since the longer yellow-light times took effect, with another dozen slated to end in the next year or so. That represents about one-third of the nearly 80 cities that used cameras in 2013.
In Tallahassee the decline in violations has been dramatic. Red-light violations dropped from 20,122 in 2011 to 8,097 in 2014, a decrease of nearly 60 percent. The same scenario has been playing out in cities throughout the state. And public officials have been spinning it the same way, stating that the cameras are working “too well,” and drivers are finally changing their scofflaw behavior. In this case, “too well” translates as “we had to stop rigging the game, and now the cameras are eating our lunch.”
We need to point out that many individuals have had an impact as well. Florida red-light camera activists Paul Henry and David Shaw have been fighting to remove red-light cameras from Tallahassee for more than a year. In that time they’ve collected and analyzed huge amounts of crash data, and made numerous presentations to city officials regarding the safety and financial issues surrounding red-light cameras. No doubt their efforts influenced the city’s decision to terminate the program.
It’s hard to imagine writing a newsletter like this just a few years ago. Florida was ground-zero for red-light camera abuses, and camera programs were spreading throughout the state at an alarming rate. Pro-camera forces seemed to have a stranglehold on policymakers at all levels. But the rules have changed, the revenue stream is drying up and the cameras are coming down.
Have the camera companies thrown in the towel? Not at all. Camera vendor ATS may have just saved its Hollywood, Florida, contract. City Commissioners had already unanimously voted not to renew the contract, but an 11th hour offer from ATS to renegotiate terms and to provide short-term financial incentives torpedoed the vote.
Will such maneuvering be enough to salvage Florida’s red-light camera business? We don’t think so. Not as long as the cameras remain a financial liability, and there are tenacious reporters and dedicated individuals looking out for the public interest.