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02 Sep 2013

Stop! Could the End Be Near for Cathedral City’s Controversial Red-Light Cameras?

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If this system at Date Palm Drive and Ramon Road catches you running a red light, you can expect a ticket for almost $500 to arrive in your mailbox. If this system at Date Palm Drive and Ramon Road catches you running a red light, you can expect a ticket for almost $500 to arrive in your mailbox. Jimmy Boegle

More than 40 cities in California have terminated red-light camera programs within the last 10 years, according TheNewspaper.com, “a journal of the politics of driving.”

San Diego announced the end of that city’s program—in which drivers were mailed tickets after tripping sensors and then getting photographed in the act of an apparent traffic violation at an intersection—in February of this year. Numerous cities in other states have similarly ended participation in this well-intentioned, but often ill-conceived approach to traffic law enforcement. At least eights states prohibit the use of red-light camera systems, including Arkansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Yet Cathedral City is sticking with its red-light camera program—at least for now.

Since March 2006, the city has had a red-light camera at Date Palm Drive and Ramon Road; in February 2009, the city added two more: At Date Palm and Vista Chino, and at Landau Boulevard and Ramon.

“It’s a cost-benefit exam,” said Capt. Chuck Robinson, the Cathedral City Police Department’s public information officer. “When we look at the system over the first five years, we saw a lot of good things come out of the safety aspect. A lot of the issues that have been brought up as arguments against the system, we’ve essentially nullified, because we did it right. We did it right from the beginning, and we did it for the right reasons.”

Public officials generally cite two reasons for supporting red-light camera programs. The first is that they benefit public safety by reducing vehicle collisions in the targeted intersections.

However, the statistics provided by Capt. Robinson show that the number of accidents at these three intersections were higher in both 2011 and 2012 than they were in 2010, the first full year that all of the cameras were operational. In 2010, there were 15 such collisions at Cathedral City red-light camera intersections. In 2011, that total soared to 25 collisions. In 2012, the number decreased to 17.

As for the statistics at those intersections before the cameras were installed, Capt. Robinson said he couldn’t provide them. “We had a crime analyst who we lost during all the cutbacks last year. That crime analyst had all the historical data, especially the red-light camera stuff. So when we lost him last year, basically we lost all his work.”

However, he did recall one statistic: “I know anecdotally that the first year we had the red-light camera at the intersection of Date Palm and Ramon, we saw a 30 percent reduction in the number of collisions at that intersection.”

The second rationale is that the fines—almost $500 per ticket—imposed on drivers provide a revenue stream to cash-strapped municipalities. However, in the case of Cathedral City, that’s not the case; in fact, only the company that manages the program is making big bucks.

Along with the red-light statistics supplied to the Independent by Capt. Robinson, he wrote, “The cumulative revenue generated by the program since March 2006 to present is $1,455,817. The cost of the program management by ATS (American Traffic Solutions, a company based in Arizona) over that same time period is $933,227. The city acquired approximately $522,580 over these last seven years, which equates to approximately $74,654 per year in revenue.”

Capt. Robinson continued: “The personnel costs associated with reviewing each citation, handling citizen inquiries and complaints, attending court and processing public-record requests during the year is about $65,000.”

That means the Cathedral City Police Department is reaping approximately $9,654 per year from the cameras.

“That sounds about right, because the whole intent of the program was to be cost-neutral,” Robinson said. “We didn’t install (the red-light camera enforcement system) to generate revenue. … Over the last seven years, the overall revenues versus what we’ve expended and paid out are negligible.”

Meanwhile, a review of public records by the Independent shows that the city’s justifications for starting the program in the first place may have been less than accurate.

The original Cathedral City authorization document for initiation of the red-light camera program, dated May 25, 2005, shows that the proposal by then-Police Chief Stanley Henry—now a member of Cathedral City’s city council—offered only one example of a successful red-light camera: Indian Wells.

The “Background” section of the document states: “Indian Wells has had a successful program for approximately four years.” It then goes on to mention: “According to their public safety manager, the Red-Light Camera Program has been part of their overall traffic strategy. He reports more awareness, less speeding and collisions. … The cameras have created few complaints and according to the Public Safety Manager have been well-received by the community. He said Cathedral City will be happy with the results.”

However, at the time of that writing, the city of Indian Wells was already in the process of terminating its red-light camera program. In fact, public records show that Indian Wells shut off its red-light camera system sometime in 2004, and officially ended the contract for services in July 2005—no more than two months after the City Council of Cathedral City cited them as a program to be emulated.

So why did Cathedral City cite Indian Wells as a red-light-camera success story when, in fact, it was not?”

“At the time that the Indian Wells program was in effect, they were very satisfied with it,” said Capt. Robinson. “The problem that Indian Wells had was that the initial technology they were utilizing was wet-film-based. The technology was in its infancy, so for them, it was very labor-intensive, which is why I think they ended up getting rid of their program.”

However, Indian Wells’ personnel director and public safety manager, Mel Windsor (who was working in the same capacity while the city’s red-light camera system was operational) differed on some of these points. Regarding the Indian Wells citizen satisfaction levels described in the Cathedral City Police Department’s proposal to the City Council, Windsor recalled, “When we first implemented the system, I fielded complaint calls all day, every day, beginning as soon as I got to my desk each morning.”

What about technical challenges in Indian Wells' system? “No, we never had any technical problems. We contracted with ACS/Lockheed Martin, and they had pretty well worked out any bugs in their system while managing their system in San Diego. … We shut down the system because it cost too much to run, and the city council made the decision to use any funds earmarked for the red-light camera system to hire additional motorcycle deputies, who can operate in more of a stealth mode and address multiple driver behaviors that pose a danger to the public safety.”

Today, some Cathedral City officials may be reaching a similar conclusion.

“The bell curve on safety benefits has flattened out,” said Capt. Robinson. “I don’t think we’re going to see any more safety that we can get out of the program in those intersections. We’re looking at the program from the standpoint of: Is it cost-effective for us to keep it? There have been a lot of costs aside from just paying for the system itself and the service behind it. So all those things have to be weighed together, and we’re in the process of doing that now.

“Our contract expires in February or March of 2014. We don’t have any addendums or extensions; it actually expires. So we’re already heading down that road where we decide if it’s something we want to continue with, or if we try something else.”

When a decision is reached by first quarter of 2014 on whether or not to extend the Cathedral City red-light camera program, will that decision be announced to the public with any fanfare?

“You know, that is a very good question,” Capt. Robinson said. “From a safety standpoint, I would say it would be in our best interest to make that as quiet as possible. But … I also realize that in a lot of areas, the popularity or unpopularity of the red-light camera systems is political. … I would say if it were up to me, (we’d) go quietly into the night. If people still believe it’s there, then they’re still going to behave. But word travels fast. I mean, it’s a small valley, so regardless, (drivers) are going to know at some point, anyway. But whether it’s with fanfare or not, I don’t know.”

Saxon Burns contributed to this story.

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