Cary puts red-light cameras on chopping block

Town manager suggests end of automated traffic photo system

akenney@newsobserver.comJuly 31, 2012 

Cary town councilman Jack Smith.

CARY TOWN COUNCIL

— Local red-light cameras may come off their mounts soon. Town staff have recommended Cary discontinue its SafeLight program, which is one of just four in the state that uses automated cameras to ticket red-light runners.

The camera network monitors only 15 of Cary’s 170 intersections, but it drains employees’ time and draws resident complaints about inaccuracy, reported Town Manager Ben Shivar. Additionally, the effort is governed by a restrictive state law that may not allow any additional cameras, while improved intersection designs have achieved some of the program’s safety goals, Shivar wrote.

Some members of the Cary Town Council will discuss the recommendation on Thursday, and the full council could act within weeks.

The system, operated by the company Redflex, has been in the spotlight this year.

First, the contractor admitted in May that it had wrongfully issued 20 tickets to drivers making lawful yellow-light turns. Following resident complaints, a Cary spokeswoman said the town was disappointed by Redflex’s performance in the matter.

As summer began, Cary Town Council members publicly questioned whether the 8-year-old traffic-camera system is worthwhile. A central concern for Mayor Harold Weinbrecht: Over the years, Redflex has kept about 88 percent of the revenue from the $50 tickets.

Councilman Jack Smith, speaking before the release of the full staff report, said that the SafeLight program has prevented accidents and performed accurately in general. But its safety role has been supplanted, he said, by dedicated turn lanes and other intersection improvements.

“The cost to maintain the program has reached the tipping point,” Smith said. The cameras are “high maintenance, they require constant repair, constant monitoring. ... The vendor has a profit motive, not a safety motive, from my perspective.”

In Cary, Redflex made about $5.7 million from April 2004 to last July, while $646,000 went to the Wake County Public School System, which receives proceeds from the traffic cameras. The system cranked out at least 12,000 tickets in fiscal 2011. Cary has kept only 0.02 percent of the ticket revenue for administrative costs.

Red-light cameras’ heyday appears to have come and gone in the last decade. In 2001, the state legislature passed a law specifically allowing the cameras’ use in some areas.

Within a few years, communities across the state were snapping away at traffic violators.

By 2004, Greensboro, High Point, Wilmington, Rocky Mount and Chapel Hill were among the camera-using ranks, and Cary had recently had its own system installed.

What town would give up

A company like Redflex can make a tempting proposal: The contractor takes construction costs out of ticket revenue, meaning Cary hasn’t paid a dime in direct costs for its system, according to town staff.

The cameras’ proponents say safety is a selling point. Cary’s red-light cameras helped reduce the number and severity of crashes by half, according to a Kimley-Horn and Associates study commissioned by Redflex in 2008. (Shivar’s report didn’t include a separate crash-rate study.)

It was the business practices of the operating companies that helped end the cameras’ spread in North Carolina. The state Court of Appeals found in 2006 that High Point gave too much of its ticket revenues to its private contractor, while the state constitution requires all clear proceeds go to local schools.

Today, only Cary, Raleigh, Knightdale and Wilmington operate red-light camera systems, protected by enabling legislation first written in 2001. Those last systems, too, came under fire as the legislature circulated a bill this year to ban the systems outright.

Raleigh recently renewed its deal with ACS Xerox to keep its own system running for two more years, after a few weeks of talk about the program’s future.

Knightdale’s town manager, Seth Lawless, said Monday that there’s been “no discussion” of taking down the town’s red light cameras, which are run by Redflex.

Kenney: 919-460-2608

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