COLUMBIA — The city of Columbia had been preparing to install its sixth red-light camera at Range Line Street and Vandiver Drive. But an announcement Friday by the Missouri Department of Transportation has thrown up a road block.
MoDOT wants to study the cameras’ use on state highways and is temporarily halting its approval of new red-light cameras. Existing cameras are not affected.
Interim Director Kevin Keith said the decision came after a conversation this past week with his colleagues, during which concerns were raised over municipalities’ use of the cameras.
“MoDOT thinks red-light rolling cameras are a good public safety tool," Keith said. "We just want to look back and see if we’re doing it right.”
The delay in Columbia is because Range Line is also Missouri 763, a state highway, and under MoDOT's authority.
Gatso USA Inc., which operates the city’s five other cameras, is responsible for asking the state for permission to install a red-light camera. Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romaine said Gatso sought the approval for the Range Line-Vandiver intersection a few weeks ago, but MoDOT has yet to respond.
“Gatso has done a traffic survey at that intersection, and the number of red-light violations were sufficient to support a red-light camera going in there,” St. Romaine said. “We’ll certainly have to put that on hold.”
The length of the delay is uncertain. “Quite frankly we just got started," Keith said. "I don’t think it will be a long thing.”
Plans for a study have not yet been formalized, Keith said.
Although Keith would not give specific examples of concerns about red-light cameras, he said enough issues have been raised that the state legislature might consider banning their use.
“One of the issues we’re looking at is if we want to set a procedure statewide,” Keith said.
St. Romaine agreed. "My guess is MoDOT is receiving some pressure from legislators," he said. "Bottom line, there needs to be some statewide regulations."
MoDOT has the power to approve the installation of cameras on its roads, but municipalities are responsible for creating their own procedures for operating them and issuing citations, Keith said.
“If this tool is abused, there’s a chance legislation would be passed to eliminate it,” Keith said.
The Missourian reported in April that the state Senate passed a ban on red-light cameras as part of a transportation bill. However, that measure has yet to gain approval in the House of Representatives.
One criticism of red-light cameras is that they could be used as cash cows for cities, Keith said.
St. Romaine defended Columbia’s cameras. “We anticipated that this would not be money maker for the city," he said. "I can certainly say that we have a problem with people running red lights.”
Before the red-light cameras were installed, the city issued about 300 violations per year, St. Romaine said. Since the beginning of this year, 1,056 people paid their red-light tickets, totaling $125,353 in revenue, Columbia Municipal Court Clerk Shara Meyer said.
However, the amount of revenue generated has fallen short of projections, and the city has eliminated a vacant city counselor position as a result, according to its 2011 budget. Moreover, $41 of each $120 ticket goes to Gatso to cover operating costs.
St. Romaine said of other more profitable red-light programs, “I’ve read about some municipalities across the nation. I think a lot of those, who have high numbers of red-lights tickets, ticket people for right on red. We’re not in the process of ticketing everyone who doesn’t make a complete stop on a right on red.”
He added that Columbia’s red-light cameras take pictures of drivers’ faces, so a ticket must be sent to the actual violator as opposed to a car’s registered owner, as in St. Louis.
"We, I think, have gone above and beyond with our program to make sure we are really sending our violations to the actual car driver," St. Romaine said.
While MoDOT prepares to study red-light cameras, Columbia is in the process of reviewing its own red-light camera program.
On July 23, the Missourian reported that St. Romaine had asked city auditor John Blattel to study red-light cameras' effectiveness in preventing accidents, as well as the revenue and expenses they generate. That report is not yet complete, but St. Romaine said it could be used to justify Columbia’s future use of the cameras.
"I think we will continue to look at other potential locations in the city of Columbia while they’re in the process of figuring out what they want to do," St. Romaine said of MoDOT.