Despite warnings, Pa. Senate votes to expand red-light camera program

State and local governments should be wary of red-light camera systems because they can be used primarily as revenue schemes, not safety devices, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group said Thursday.

The report was issued as Pennsylvania considers expanding its red-light camera program beyond Philadelphia amid questions about the program's effectiveness here.

A bill to allow 19 smaller Pennsylvania cities to install red-light cameras passed the state Senate on Tuesday.

The cautionary report from USPIRG, a consumer-advocacy group, said local governments should:

Consider alternative safety options "without regard to potential revenues."

Avoid conflicts of interest that can pit the profit motives of private camera operators against public-safety policies.

Avoid incentives for red-light vendors based on the number of tickets or fines issued.

Retain complete public control over all transportation-policy decisions.

Retain the option to withdraw from a contract early if dissatisfied with the service or its effects.

Ensure the contracting process is open, with ample public participation.

Make information about the operation of the cameras "fully transparent and accessible online."

Prevent information about individual vehicles and drivers gathered by camera vendors from being used for any purpose other than traffic law enforcement.

Consider state standards to help cities avoid contracting for red-light cameras "that are not justified or when alternatives make more sense."

The authors did not look at Philadelphia's experience or at the proposed expansion of Pennsylvania's Automated Red Light Enforcement program to other cities.

"We didn't look specifically at Philadelphia's experience so far, and it fortunately hasn't had the horror stories of some other cities - and we want to make sure any bill coming out of the legislature would have strong protections to prevent horror stories from happening in any other cities in the state," said Alana Miller of the Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group.

Pennsylvania lawmakers and officials at the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which operates the city's red-light camera program, say Pennsylvania already has adopted most of the safeguards the PIRG report recommended.

Vincent J. Fenerty, chief of the Parking Authority, said Philadelphia's contract with American Traffic Solutions Inc., the Scottsdale, Ariz., company that installs and maintains the cameras here, pays no commissions and provides no incentives for the company to issue more citations.

"It's only about safety here," Fenerty said, "not revenue."

The Inquirer reported Tuesday that Philadelphia police data on crashes at intersections monitored by red-light cameras show that the number of crashes had increased at most of the intersections.

Fenerty and some highway-safety experts questioned the validity of the police data.

The Parking Authority's own analysis last month of recent crashes at three red-light-camera intersections on Roosevelt Boulevard found accidents down 8.5 percent, with injury accidents up 8 percent.

The Parking Authority now has 90 cameras at 20 intersections; the most recent were added this month at Broad and Vine Streets.

The next intersection to be equipped with cameras will be Island Avenue and Lindburgh Boulevard in Southwest Philadelphia, expected to be operational next month.

Four other intersections await approval by City Council and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for installation of red-light cameras: Academy Road and Grant Avenue; Knights Road and Woodhaven Road; Byberry Road and Worthington Road; and Byberry Road and Bustleton Avenue.

Motorists are fined $100 if they are photographed running a red light. Since the first cameras were installed in 2005, the program has been a lucrative source of income: Motorists have paid $45.3 million in fines, of which $21.1 million has gone to PennDot.

The rest of the money - $24.2 million - has gone to pay the expenses of operating the program, mainly to American Traffic Solutions and to the Parking Authority.

PennDot distributes its revenue from the camera program for transportation projects: half to Philadelphia and half to the rest of the state.

So far, Philadelphia has received $8.4 million; another $8.4 million has gone to 116 other municipalities in the state. Philadelphia is to get an additional $1.5 million, and a like amount will go to the rest of the state.

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587