Va. Municipalities Tally Costs, Benefits Involving Red Light Cameras

June 16, 2005

Red-light cameras have been criticized as moneymakers masquerading as safety devices. But several Virginia jurisdictions predict their budgets will be better off when Virginia ends the pilot program this summer.

“We’ve probably lost $1 million over five years, and I hesitate to say lost,” Bruce Taylor, Fairfax County’s Traffic System program manager, said of the cameras. “When you look at societal costs, obviously it prevents people from getting hurt.”

The cameras take pictures of cars that run lights at certain busy intersections. The license plate number is used to identify the car’s owner, who then gets a ticket in the mail.

Fairfax County installed cameras at 15 locations over the past five years, at a cost of about $40,000 per camera. The county then had to set up the infrastructure, including poles and sensors, and hire additional staff to administer the program.

During this time, Taylor said the county has seen a 60 percent decrease in red-light violations.

Having served as a volunteer paramedic in Loudoun County for seven years, Taylor saw firsthand some of the worst accidents resulting from the rush to make a light. He sees state lawmakers’ decision not to renew the program — ending it July 1 — as “putting politics above people’s lives.”

“It’s a great loss to the commonwealth,” Taylor said.

Fairfax City was the first to install the cameras, and City Manager Bob Sisson said the infrastructure cost “hundreds of thousands” of dollars.

“We had to buy the cameras, buy the signal poles, cut the roads to put in the sensors,” Sisson said. Fairfax City is one of the few jurisdictions to make a slight profit.

“It’s almost a wash, expense versus revenue. The revenue from those fines is not critical to our operating,” Sisson said.

For Arlington County, it’s a similar story.

“The revenue impact is not going to be that great. It’s about $5,000,” said county spokesman Charles Taylor. He said they leased their cameras and took the administrative costs out of the revenue from the $50 tickets.

“We do not have this as a revenue answer. We had it as a safety measure,” Taylor said.

Falls Church City tallied its revenue impact down to the penny. Over the three-year history of its red-light camera program, the city issued 25,000 violations. After taking out administrative costs, including a uniformed officer viewing the video and making a judgment on the violation, the city earned 6 cents per ticket, for an average of $500 a year.

City spokeswoman Dionne Williams said the program improved rush-hour traffic by discouraging drivers from blocking intersections.

The City of Alexandria paid a contractor $27,000 a month to run its red-light cameras. The contractor charged a flat rate for the equipment and ticket processing, regardless of how many tickets were issued.

From November 1997 to December 2004, Alexandria issued 66,905 tickets, officials said. Over seven years, the total tickets were for $3.3 million, and an average of 75 percent of drivers pay the fines.

Town of Vienna Police Chief Robert Carlisle said their costs varied, with some years running a slight profit and others a slight deficit.

From late 1999 through January, Vienna spent $878,735 and collected $638,440 in fines. The city reports the loss amounted to $18.82 per ticket.

“The net was a loss over those four years,” Carlisle said.

Northern Virginia officials said that while they will flip the off switch in time for the July deadline, they expect to continue petitioning Richmond to reinstate the cameras.

“I think it will come up next (General Assembly) session to resurrect it. I don’t know if it will be successful,” Carlisle said.

Alexandria Police spokeswoman Amy Bertsch said the city probably won’t remove all the equipment and infrastructure — just in case.

Several jurisdictions plan to continue to watch accident data at those red-light camera intersections. Bertsch said that will reveal the real cost of removing the cameras.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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