Red-light cameras generate little revenue for Columbia

Statistics show decline in accidents at some intersections
Monday, December 27, 2010 | 6:29 p.m. CST; updated 10:49 a.m. CST, Wednesday, December 29, 2010

COLUMBIA — Although traffic cameras often are criticized as simply being a way for governments to make money, recent data suggest that's not the case in Columbia.

The city collected $158,515 from red-light camera tickets during fiscal 2010, but after all expenses are accounted for, it received only $18,047 in net revenue. 

Where did the rest of the money go? Here's how Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romaine broke it down in a Dec. 21 memo to City Manager Bill Watkins:

  • Gatso USA received $58,608. It installed and maintains Columbia's five cameras.
  • The Police Department spent $34,101 on personnel that reviewed potential citations before they were issued.
  • The Municipal Court spent $41,203 on prosecution and clerk costs related to the tickets.
  • The city spent $6,555 on ticket-related supplies.

The city printed 1,665 citations from Oct. 1, 2009, to Sept. 30, 2010.

Municipal Court Clerk Shara Meyer said the court added an additional docket day each week for arraignments, in part as a result of the increased caseload from red-light tickets. She also noted an increase in tickets written by police for speeding and other traffic offenses.

St. Romaine asked internal auditor John Blattel, who also is serving as interim city finance director, to compile the financial data on the red-light cameras to see whether they are generating revenue.

City officials have maintained they were not interested in installing red-light cameras to make money but rather to improve safety at the intersections. While there's no cause-and-effect evidence, it appears accidents are declining at most of the intersections equipped with cameras.

City statistics show that the number of accidents declined by 10.6 percent in the intersections after red-light cameras were installed, from 157 to 142 in comparable time periods, according to a report from the Columbia Police Department to St. Romaine. The city studied each of the intersections at different times of the year and for various lengths of time.

Here's what the data show:

  • The intersection of Stadium and Forum boulevards — which was studied from Feb. 6 to Oct. 15 in 2009, before two cameras were installed there, and during the same time period in 2010, after the cameras were in place — saw the largest decrease in accidents, from 42 to 22.
  • The intersection of Providence Road and Broadway, which was studied for an entire year before and after the cameras were installed, saw accidents decline from 27 to 20.
  • The Stadium-Providence intersection, studied at the same times as the Forum intersection, was relatively flat. There were 37 accidents before the cameras were installed and 36 afterward.
  • The intersection of Stadium and Worley Street actually saw an increase in accidents. There were 51 crashes there from Sept. 7, 2008, to Sept. 7, 2009, and 64 the following year.

The city was preparing to install its sixth red-light camera at Range Line Street and Vandiver Drive, but it put that plan on hold when the Missouri Department of Transportation announced in October that it would halt its approval of red-light cameras on its highways. Because Range Line also is Missouri 763, the intersection is under MoDOT’s authority.

Kevin Keith, director of MoDOT, said the department wanted to study the cameras’ operation records before approving more, as some communities had been using the cameras as money-makers rather than tools to improve public safety, according to a report from The Associated Press.

Since October, MoDOT has been researching the use of red-light cameras, and it plans to propose a policy on the devices to the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission.

“We have been talking to cities, talking to law enforcement, to structure a workable and correct policy," MoDOT spokesman Jorma Duran said.

"The recommendation of MoDOT will be delivered to the commission by Jan. 5 for their review prior to the next commission meeting on Jan. 12, where it may be adopted or rejected," Duran said.

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Mark Flakne December 28, 2010 | 12:54 a.m.

"City statistics show that the number of accidents declined by 10.6 percent in the intersections after red-light cameras were installed, from 157 to 142 in comparable time periods, according to a report from the Columbia Police Department to St. Romaine. The city studied each of the intersections at different times of the year and for various lengths of time."

This is meaningless unless the numbers are all compared to non-camera intersections during the same time period.

These machines are revenue generators for Gatso, plain and simple.

The city may not "profit" from the cameras, but they certainly put the funds to use growing the city bureaucracy.

When self-funded partnerships with multi-national mega-corporations becomes the norm for a city, prepare for corruption. Gatso probably dictated the talking points for the city that generated the article you just read.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle December 28, 2010 | 9:34 a.m.

No overall traffic counts to gage the accident statistics against? Worthless.

No mention of the "halo" effect? That means it probably didn't happen.

Mark is spot on with his analysis: "...they certainly put the funds to use growing the bureaucracy." And, "Gatso probably dictated the talking points for the city that generated the article you just read."

(Report Comment)
Troy Kite December 28, 2010 | 2:04 p.m.

Seems to me these cameras have done little to nothing. This pointless data is proof that the city is grasping for justification of the expenses involved. That's not going to happen.... ever. There have been numerous studies done accross the US in regards to these cameras and almost all show they are not effective and the ROI is minimal at best.

At first people seemed to make an effort to stop early at these intersections. Now, most have figured out they just need to gun the accelerator even more to beat crossing the line before the yellow light changes to red. I fail to see how that helps. Seems to me that all it is doing is making sure the accidents that do still occur are more deadly.

I have often stated the best solution is to have an "all red" light scenario for at least a couple of seconds. That would be far better IMHO.

(Report Comment)
J W December 28, 2010 | 2:40 p.m.

Kevin Keith is no longer the "interim director" of MODoT. He was named the permanent director on April 23, 2011.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle December 28, 2010 | 3:22 p.m.

Camera-based traffic enforcement has never survived a public vote.
Just sayin...

(Report Comment)
Mark Flakne December 28, 2010 | 4:08 p.m.

All red delays are the way to go, but that doesn't generate revenue for Gatso or the city.

(Report Comment)
dan elliott December 28, 2010 | 5:30 p.m.

if the city can pay Gatso then i should be able to take my home camera to any intersection and take video, edit it to those running red, submit it to the police and collect $50 each ticket generated.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle December 28, 2010 | 9:09 p.m.

@Dan: If could set up a speed enforcement camera on my property, and get a cut from every ticket paid, I'd be getting rich real quick. Of the roughly 12,000 vehicles that pass by my house every day, 7K-8K of them are speeding, and 2K-3K of them are more than 10 over the limit.

Even if I only got $50 a pop out of the 10+ over drivers, I'd still probably be able to afford the security required to keep my house from being attacked and torched by an angry mob, and have enough money left over to... you name it.

It's certainly a thought. A greedy, immoral thought. :-)

(Report Comment)
Brett Richardson December 28, 2010 | 11:03 p.m.

Accidents and violations are down at intersections where cameras are installed. The city is obviously not using it as a revenue generator, but we still have people having the gall to complain about them. We all know what you are up to. You want to srive anyway you want without being held accountable. Stop complaining, being so selfish and learn how to drive.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle December 28, 2010 | 11:29 p.m.

@Brett: I ride a bicycle for transportation. I have more to lose from some knucklehead (including myself) running a red light than just about anyone. As far as "accountable" goes I've voluntarily put licence plates on my bicycle so I can be identified in traffic.

Yet, I'm an outspoken critic. Why?

There are far less costly, more effective, smaller-government solutions to the problem. It's really that simple.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz December 29, 2010 | 3:42 a.m.

Where is the raw data? Was it provided in a press release by the city (I see no such release on its website)? Does CPD attribute a reason to each accident that was listed in the before and after numbers, or could factors other than red light cameras account for a decrease in accidents at two of the intersections? And why didn't accidents go down at the other two intersection?

(Report Comment)
John Schultz December 29, 2010 | 12:14 p.m.

If I'm reading the data I received from the city correctly (need to confirm with CPD), it looks like most of the intersections had a whopping one or two signal violations last year. In other words, most of the accidents were not caused by running red lights.

(Report Comment)
Mark Flakne December 30, 2010 | 12:22 p.m.

Here are the stats the city is using

(Report Comment)
John Schultz December 30, 2010 | 12:39 p.m.

Sounds like an enterprising reporter could smell a story here...

(Report Comment)

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