Red-light camera experiment ends, but debate goes on

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An enforcement sign is seen below a red-light camera Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014, in Lawrence Township, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

After five years, New Jersey's pilot red-light camera traffic program came to a quiet end.

But the debate continues on whether the controversial experiment improved safety or was just a cash cow for municipalities that raked in millions from frustrated motorists.

Six municipalities in Camden and Gloucester Counties installed cameras at nine intersections in South Jersey under the program, which began in 2009. The cameras nailed hundreds of thousands of motorists blowing through intersections when the light was red.

At $85 each, the citations pulled in millions of dollars in fines for more than two dozen municipalities, which were allowed to keep the bulk of the money to add to their coffers.

The program ended Tuesday without a move by lawmakers to extend it. Final figures are being tallied. The state Department of Transportation, which was required to annually analyze whether the cameras made the intersections safer, will issue a report on the program in the coming months.

"It is an early Christmas present that it is over for the motorists of New Jersey," said Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon (R., Monmouth), who disputes the cameras' reliability and impact on safety. "It was a scourge from the beginning."

On Friday, Moody's credit agency called New Jersey's and New York's failure to renew red-light camera programs a negative development. Moody's said the program's expiration could cost local governments money.

In Southeastern Pennsylvania, there are red-light cameras at 28 intersections in Philadelphia and recently installed cameras at three intersections in Abington Township.

The Philadelphia cameras have generated about $70 million in fines since the first ones were installed in the city in 2005.

Until 2012, Philadelphia received half the revenue from its red-light cameras. But the state legislature changed the law to allow an eight-member panel to hand out the money to applicants from around the state, based on perceived benefits and effectiveness, costs, local and regional impact, and cost-sharing.

New Jersey created its pilot program in 2008, allowing 25 municipalities to install red-light cameras in an effort to reduce accidents at dangerous intersections where other measures had proved ineffective.

Local police say the cameras made busy intersections safer because the threat of a ticket deterred motorists from running lights and possibly hitting vehicles or pedestrians.

According to preliminary figures, citations from the red-light cameras have dropped this year in several South Jersey towns, including Cherry Hill. Two Camden County towns, Gloucester Township and Stratford, and three Gloucester County towns, Glassboro, Deptford, and Monroe Township, also were in the program.

At the busy intersection where Springdale Road crosses Route 70 in Cherry Hill, police this year had issued 17,695 tickets from red-light camera violations as of Nov. 30, said township spokeswoman Bridget Palmer. They issued 25,304 tickets the previous year, she said.

Of the $1.5 million collected in fines, Cherry Hill kept $1.2 million, and the balance went to the state.

Municipalities paid fees to one of the two Arizona companies that installed and operated the cameras.

Cherry Hill put the money collected from tickets into its general revenue funds for municipal services, including police and public safety, Palmer said.

"The revenue has not been a focus for us," she said. "The camera program has always been about changing driver behavior and making our roads safer."

The red-light traffic program was controversial almost from the start amid a nationwide debate about the value of the cameras. The first cameras were activated in 2009.

There have been a federal lawsuit, computer glitches, and complaints by thousands of disgruntled motorists, who say they were unfairly cited for making a right turn on red without stopping completely.

Most of the camera violations in New Jersey were for right-on-red infractions, not driving straight through an intersection. But police say those turns can be dangerous, too, especially for pedestrians.

"We had nothing but success," Glassboro Police Chief Alex Fanfarillo said. "They were designed to a create a safer intersection, and in Glassboro it did just that."

Glassboro issued 3,509 red-light camera citations in 2014, compared with 5,263 in 2013 and 5,679 in 2012.

This year, the borough kept $88,458 from the fines it collected. The funds were used in the operating budget.

"It's not about profit. It's just about decreasing accidents," Fanfarillo said. "The bottom line is, it is about saving lives."

In nearby Monroe Township, 9,774 tickets were issued between June 2013 and May 2014. Between June 2012 and May 2013, 13,033 tickets were issued. Figures were not available on how much was collected in fines.

Municipalities still have about 90 days to issue tickets for any alleged violations captured by the cameras before they were removed last week.

"This equipment was a ripoff from day one. Good riddance to it," O'Scanlon said.

The program had a five-year life unless the Legislature extended it. Gov. Christie did not support renewing it. Elsewhere in the nation, some cities have abandoned similar programs.

A study commissioned by the Chicago Tribune concluded that the city's red-light cameras had failed to deliver the significant benefits claimed by officials and were responsible for increases in some crashes that caused injuries. Chicago has 350 cameras, and its program has generated more than $500 million in fines since 2002.

In New Jersey, more than 15,000 tickets were voided this year because of a computer glitch. In 2012, the state suspended dozens of the cameras because of concerns that yellow lights were not properly timed to give drivers time to brake safely.

"It's a little bit premature to draw any conclusions," said Steve Shapiro, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation. "We want to gather all of the data and report those findings."

 


mburney@phillynews.com

856-779-3814 @mlburney

Inquirer staff writer Paul Nussbaum contributed to this article, which also includes information from the Associated Press.