Red-light camera enforcement differs statewide

Tuesday, October 27, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:06 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 27, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — More than 17 Missouri cities operate red-light cameras, but the financing and enforcement of them does not operate uniformly.

The two main differences that vary from city to city deal with the criteria for citations and the payment to the companies owning and operating the cameras.

For citations, some cities like Columbia require that there be a photo of the driver of the car and the car itself that runs a red light, while other cities like Kansas City just need photos of the car and license plate. When it comes to payments, the fine amount varies from city to city, as does the amount each company receives.

In Kansas City, American Traffic Solutions owns and operates the red-light cameras. The company receives $4,500 per month per camera from the city as long as the money raised exceeds that amount. Since implementation in January, American Traffic Solutions has invoiced Kansas City $520,000 from 37,726 violations for their 29 cameras, according to a Kansas City Public Works release. 

St. Louis also uses American Traffic Solutions, and the company also owns and operates cameras there. In St. Louis, the company receives $31.33 for each $100 citation issued, according to Ron Smith, executive director for city operations. Since the cameras were installed in May 2007, the company has collected $3.1 million from 102,859 paid citations, Smith said.

While the payment process for Kansas City and St. Louis differ, the methods of data collection, installation and maintenance of the cameras are the same, Jason Norton, American Traffic Solutions' regional manager, said. For each city, temporary cameras are installed for eight to 24 hours in order for the company and city to study which intersections cause the most problems. From there, the company installs the cameras without charge to the cities.

In order to issue a citation, the company takes two photos — one before a vehicle enters an intersection and another in the intersection — as well as a 12-second video of the car. The video, Norton said, is to make sure there are no extenuating circumstances forcing a car into the intersection that aren't caught on the photos. After reviewing the information and enlarging the license plate in the photo, the information is sent to the licensing office and local police department for further review.

"The beauty of the system is that the camera is objective," Norton said. "No matter who you are, you get a ticket."

While the process is similar in Columbia, information given to the owner and city differs.

According to Gatso USA President and co-founder Andrew Noble, the company's cameras in Columbia are "unique" in what they offer to a city. Noble said his company's violation notices present the owner with photos of the driver and vehicle along with a 17-point data bar with information such as time the light has been red, time of day, date and how long the yellow light was.

Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, has said his biggest issue with red-light cameras deals with payments to the companies. Crowell said he has a problem with systems like those in place in St. Louis and Columbia, where a percentage of each ticket goes to the company. For Crowell, that leaves no other contingencies for other policing tools.

Noble said companies like his earn that money because they front the funds needed for initial installation and maintenance. According to him, each camera installed at an intersection costs Gatso USA $100,000, which comes at no cost to the city. American Traffic Solutions operates under a similar system where each camera can cost anywhere from $80,000 to $100,000 to create, install and maintain, Norton said.

The cameras are an asset for the cities, Smith said, because they promote safety. 

In St. Louis, the red-light cameras have been a "good public safety initiative to make our intersections safer," Smith said, and data has already shown a marked improvement in the city when it comes to running red lights.

A similar sentiment is echoed by Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser.

"The idea is to prevent or reduce the number of accidents at intersections," he said, but also added that cameras have highlighted the massive amount of disregard for red lights that currently exists.

Funkhouser said that while there may be bugs in the system that need to be worked out, he is pleased with the results.

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