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.