After extolling virtues of red-light cameras, Tampa City Council votes to kill them

(Update- Bob Buckhorn responds. Read below). So much for the convenient narrative that St. Pete hates red-light street cameras and Tampa loves them.

The Tampa City Council today voted 4-3 to end the city's contract with American Traffic Solutions, the company that has placed 51 red-light cameras at 21 intersections in the city, when it expires in a few weeks. The proposal, backed by Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Police Chief Jane Castor, would have extended the contract with ATS for another two years.

Although described as a "stunning" vote in some quarters, the cameras never had overwhelming support from the council, who voted 4-3 to accept them back in April of 2011. And unlike their colleagues in St. Petersburg, there have been fewer concerns about the reliability of the cameras, but more about where the city's portion of the $158 fines were going in Tampa.
"I'm wondering why the city doesn't respond to my request," complained Councilman Frank Reddick, who has called for the funds generated by the fines to be set aside and used to improve intersections where a preponderance of violations occur. Reddick was joined in opposing the cameras by Charlie Miranda, Mary Mulhern and Yolie Capin.

"I won't be supporting it this time, but I would be amicable about bringing it back after the administration detailed where this money is going," said Capin, who actually supported the idea of raising the $158 fine, though in fact that's a state law that only legislators in Tallahassee could alter.

Reddick and Capin's concerns were echoed by Council Chair Miranda today, and were similar to his complaints back in 2011 when the issue initially went before the Council. He bristled at City Attorney Julia Mandell today when she told him she wasn't prepared to answer specifically where the $1.6 million generated in the last fiscal year had gone in the city's budget. Mandell said nobody on the Council had directed her in advance to come prepared with that information.

As in St. Petersburg, Tampa has received less revenue from the cameras in 2013 than in 2012 because there have been fewer citations issued. That's led supporters to argue that the behavior of motorists has improved because of the fear of running through a red light.

Mulhern sounded generally supportive of the cameras, making her no vote somewhat of a surprise. "I know that there's a lot of questions nationwide and in Florida about these cameras, but it sounds like Tampa is operating them very well," she told Police Chief Castor. She too, however, argued that the city should use some of the revenue from the cameras to further increase safety.

The most enthusiastic supporter of the cameras was Councilman Harry Cohen, who accurately noted that "what I'm hearing is that there's a broad consensus that this has been a successful program." He agreed that it would have been "very helpful" for the Buckhorn administration to detail where the funds from the red-light fines went. But he said that just as large an issue when it comes to discussing the safety of pedestrians in Tampa is the preponderance of drivers who continue to talk and even text on their cellphones while driving (the Florida Legislature passed a law last year banning texting while driving).

"If you don't want to get a red-light ticket, don't run through a red light," he declared.

There was considerable talk amongst council members about the need to educate the public, especially those who dart across city streets outside of a crosswalk. Too much talk, as it turned out for Reddick, who was thinking about accidents that have killed young children in Tampa over the years because of the lack of sufficient street lightning.

"I don't know about your neighborhoods, but that's a big issue in my district," he said to his colleagues with an edge in his voice.

After the final vote, Police Chief Castor looked momentarily stunned and shook her head in surprise and disappointment.

Unlike the tone of the discussions that culminated in the St. Petersburg City Council agreeing to end their contract with ATS by the end of this summer at the latest, there has not been any controversy surrounding the actual equipment of the cameras, specifically the timing of yellow lights. But what did surface was anger at Mayor Bob Buckhorn for not addressing council members' preference that the money be set aside from general revenues and instead used to improve infrastructure needs.

After St. Pete voted two weeks ago to kill the cameras, Buckhorn spokeswoman Ali Glisson said, "We have no plans to get rid of the red-light camera program." But unlike so so many other controversial issues within the city, the buck stopped with the council this time, not the mayor.

Red-light cameras remain in use in a number of other Bay area communities, including Hillsborough County, Temple Terrace, Gulfport, New Port Richey & Clearwater.

(UPDATE: This afternoon Mayor Bob Buckhorn issued a statement saying he will work with members of Council to address their issues in order to extend the city's contract with ATS.

"For me, the public's safety is always the paramount issue at stake.

I will work with Tampa City Council over the next week to reach an agreement and will do what I can to make them feel more comfortable with the way red light camera revenue is being utilized to ensure driver, cyclist, and pedestrian safety within the City of Tampa.

The problem is with the drivers who run a red light, breaking the law and putting others in danger.

We know that red light cameras work in Tampa. They have changed driver behavior and kept our streets safer. They are an important tool in keeping the public safe." 

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