Red-light cameras focus on finances

Large programs in Md. are revenue generators

smaller ones just get by

April 02, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Some red-light camera programs around Maryland might soon have to worry about keeping themselves out of the red.

Although larger jurisdictions such as Baltimore City and Montgomery County have steadily expanded their programs and are reaping increasing returns from $75 fines for red-light violations, some cities and counties are experiencing a steady drop in citations and revenue.

And some localities, particularly those with only a few cameras, are considering cutting back or dropping their programs altogether.

"We recognize [red-light cameras] truly as a safety program, so we'll most likely continue it no matter what happens," said Lt. Tim Black, who until recently helped oversee Howard County's program and 13 others from a centralized regional office in Columbia.

"But each jurisdiction will have to see if they can afford to pay for the program, based on their budget issues and concerns."

Revenues have steadily fallen in Baltimore and Howard counties. Municipalities such as Bel Air and Annapolis are expecting their programs to break even. Some jurisdictions might eventually have to decide between scrapping the cameras or staying the course, even if it means subsidizing them.

"If the program is of any value, the purpose of a red-light camera is to put [itself] out of a job," said Richard Raub, a senior research scientist at Northwestern University's Center for Public Safety, which focuses on police and traffic engineering issues.

"The obvious outcome is going to be less revenue," Raub said. "So the question is, are you interested in revenue, or are you interested in safety?"

More than 90 cities and towns in 15 states and Washington, D.C., have red-light cameras. Ever since Howard County became the first jurisdiction in Maryland to issue camera-generated tickets in 1998, the programs have been roundly criticized as an invasion of privacy and a grab for easy revenue.

Programs in Baltimore, California and elsewhere have also been criticized over various issues, from shortened yellow lights to contracts with vendors who might have financial incentives to mail out more citations.

In a November report, Baltimore's top District Court official, Judge Keith E. Mathews, echoed an earlier criticism by AAA Mid-Atlantic when he questioned the motivation of the city's red-light program. He wrote that there appeared to be "a political interest in obtaining greater revenue by issuing more citations."

Critics of red-light cameras earned a victory this past week when a General Assembly committee approved a minimum standard of three seconds for yellow-light times. AAA Mid-Atlantic applauded the measure, saying that judges now have a standard for tossing out citations issued at traffic signals with yellow-light times below three seconds - a frequent problem in Baltimore, the group said.

Though controversy often surrounds the cameras, studies have shown that the cameras do make drivers think twice about running red lights.

A Federal Highway Administration report in 2000 found that red-light violations decreased by as much as 60 percent at intersections with automated cameras. The report analyzed results of red-light camera programs in Los Angeles County; San Francisco; New York City; Howard County, Md.; and Polk County, Fla.

But across Maryland, the financial viability of camera programs varies widely.

Baltimore's program continues to be a boon for the city, while also reducing the number of accidents at intersections with cameras by 61 percent from 1999 to 2002. The city's program has grown to 47 cameras, and 60 more are expected to be added, while annual revenue from fines has grown from $3.5 million in fiscal year 2000 to $8.5 million in the past fiscal year, said Edward J. Gallagher, the city Finance Department's deputy director.

The program cost about $3 million to run last year. The remaining $5.5 million went into the city's transportation fund, which is used to pay for road work, maintenance and traffic engineering, Gallagher said.

Alfred H. Foxx, the city's Transportation Department chief, said a major reason that revenues have increased is that the program is now "more efficient" in issuing citations. Fewer citations are being thrown out for reasons such as cloudy photos or unidentifiable license plates, he said.

"Back in 2000, you stood a 60 percent chance of not getting a citation" if you ran a red light at an intersection with a camera, Foxx said. "Today you stand a 60 percent chance of getting the citation."

Montgomery County's program has grown from six cameras in 1999 to 31 cameras. Revenue from citations increased from $300,000 in the first year to $4 million last year, with half going to the camera vendor.

The Police Department gets a portion to cover its administrative expenses, and the rest is deposited in the county's general fund, according to Lt. Ron Smith, a Montgomery County police spokesman.

Smaller jurisdictions, which have fewer cameras and more drivers who probably know where they are, have been particularly hard hit.

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