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RED LIGHT, GREEN LIGHT: PA considers allowing red-light cameras to run past 2017

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Red-light cameras that keep a watchful eye on Pennsylvania drivers in select municipalities are scheduled to power down in 2017, but some state lawmakers aren’t ready to put the program in park.

The House Transportation Committee this week signaled its support to eliminate the sunset provision that would end the camera programs about two years from now. James Sikorski Jr., a Luzerne County resident who has kept tabs on the red-light camera program, wasn’t happy about that development.

“They are hoping nobody will notice,” said Sikorski, a Pennsylvania member of the National Motorists Association, which has fought red-light camera programs across the country.

Shutterstock image

Shutterstock image

RED LIGHT, GREEN LIGHT: State lawmakers are considering lifting the sunset provision that would phase out red-light cameras in 2017.

If Pennsylvania lawmakers eliminate the sunset provision, they’d be moving in the opposite direction of other states that have slammed their programs in reverse amid scandal, discounted claims of safety benefits and accusations the cameras are nothing more than municipal revenue generators.

Eric Bugaile, executive director of the House Transportation Committee, said there’s a practical reason to lift the sunset provision. With a 2017 expiration date, it’s difficult to convince camera vendors to agree to what’s little more than a one-year contract.

Officials here also try to assuage concern with another message: Pennsylvania isn’t like those other places that have had problems.

“If you look at how this program here is structured, it takes into account a lot of protections for the motorists,” Bugaile said.

Chief among that is a provision that prevents municipalities from profiting off cameras. Municipalities can use revenue from up to $100 fines to cover out-of-pocket expenses for personnel and equipment, but extra revenue must go to the state to fund traffic safety grants awarded across Pennsylvania.

So far, almost $40 million has been awarded as part of 275 projects, said Rich Kirkpatrick, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

Red-light cameras were initially relegated just to Philadelphia. The city set up its first camera in June 2005 and covers 27 total intersections today.

The state expanded the program in 2012, making 29 more municipalities eligible to use the cameras, but only Philadelphia and a neighboring suburb to the north, Abington Township, have taken advantage so far.

In challenging the program, Sikorski points to statistics that found crashes at the first two intersections to get cameras in Philadelphia actually increased in the five years after drivers were under surveillance. The Philadelphia Parking Authority’s red-light department could not be reached for comment.

Abington Township’s program covers three intersections and is operating on a one-year trial period that ends in September, Police Chief William Kelly said. Commissioners will decide then whether to continue the program, he said.

The cameras were set up “very judiciously” at intersections that had the most crashes and where it was “almost impossible” to conduct normal enforcement because of the terrain or topography, Kelly said.  So far, crashes have fallen by 22 percent at the covered intersections, the chief said.

On the revenue end, fines have paid for the township’s cost of a little more than $64,000, but revenue has not been prolific enough to cover the entire bill for the camera vendor. Gatso, Inc., has received just $168,000 of $336,000 due, Kelly said.

Even if future revenue doesn’t make up the difference, taxpayers aren’t at risk because Gatso is required to eat the loss, Kelly said.

“We don’t make money. We don’t lose money,” he said.

Addressing another usual concern over red-light cameras, Kelly said municipalities aren’t allowed to fiddle with yellow-light times to prompt more violations.

There’s good reason why outfits like the National Motorists Association, though, are wary of that type of behavior.

New Jersey lawmakers allowed the state’s five-year pilot program to expire the end of 2014. Its half-decade existence was fraught with controversy, including one camera vendor, American Traffic Solutions, refunding more than $4 million in fines because of improperly certified yellow-light times.

Chicago has also scaled back its red-light program after the Chicago Tribune revealed failed oversight over the program and commissioned a study that found cameras did not benefit about six-dozen intersections.

The programs have also delved into the corrupt. The former CEO of Redflex, one camera vendor, earlier this month pleaded guilty to an eight-year bribery and fraud scheme in which the company used a consultant to funnel campaign contributions to elected officials in Ohio in attempts to secure municipal contracts.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 10 states prohibit the use of red-light cameras. A few others are considering joining the list.

“Overall, the red-light camera industry is on a downturn in the United States,” said Gary Biller, president of the National Motorists Association.

Not in Pennsylvania, where the House Transportation Committee gave a unanimous thumbs-up to continue the program past 2017. Coincidentally enough, lawmakers did it by amending a bill that allows motorists to drive through red lights when sensors aren’t tripped.

The bill has not even cleared the state House, but Sikorski called it “sneaky.” The sponsor of the original bill, state Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-Cumberland, said he’s OK with the amendment because it doesn’t change the scope of the red-light camera program, but just lifts the sunset provision.

“It wasn’t something I advocated for,” Bloom said, “but I’m not opposed to it, either.”