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August 7, 2012 | By | Posted in General News, Investigations

Report: Red light cameras likely not worth the cost in Philly suburbs

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

Look out! Red light cameras could be coming to the Philly suburbs. But are they worth the cost?

HARRISBURG — Municipalities in the Philadelphia suburbs might find red light cameras are not worth their costs, according to a state report.

While Philadelphia has generated more than enough money from violations to cover the $6 million price tag of their camera system, a report from the state Transportation Advisory Commission warns that smaller municipalities would not make enough money to pay for a similar program.

We don’t know if a red light camera program is going to be financially self-sustaining in the suburban communities of Philadelphia,” said Jenny Robinson, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, which highlighted TAC’s report in an analysis of the Philadelphia red light camera program this week.

Each camera has to generate more than 300 violations per month to cover its costs, according to the report.

In total, the 19 intersections with cameras throughout Philadelphia issued 141,000 violations and drained $13.7 million from drivers’ wallets last year, according to the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which manages the camera program.

Legislation passed in June would allow Pittsburgh and about a dozen municipalities in the Philadelphia suburbs to use red light cameras. The municipalities would be required to pay for the program and transfer any excess revenue to the state Department of Transportation to fund traffic safety initiatives statewide.

“According to PennDOT calculations, only the City of Pittsburgh would have the traffic environment necessary to make (red light cameras) a sustainable program,” the commission wrote.

The TAC report also shows that violations from red light cameras drop off quickly — with as much as a 50 percent reduction in violations in only one year.

As intersections get safer, though, less revenue is coming in.

We don’t want it to be a burden to taxpayers,” Robinson said. “Most important, is it the most cost-effective way to improve highway safety and save lives?

It costs, on average, $31,847 per month to operate each red light camera intersection in Philadelphia. Given a $100 fine per violation, each intersection needs to generate about 10.5 violations per day, about 318 per month, to cover operational costs, according to AAA.

The enabling legislation for the suburban red light camera program will not take effect until September, and most municipalities are still weighing the potential costs and benefits.

Rich Gestrich, township manager for Lower Providence Township in Montgomery County, said the township was studying placing red light cameras at six intersections — mostly along heavily traveled commuter routes like Ridge Pike and Trooper Road — but costs would be part of the final decision.

“They would have to at least make us whole,” he said, adding that the township is running a deficit and would not be able to maintain a camera program if it did not pay for itself.

“We’re not taking them off the table for the future, but we’re also not going to be considering them at this time,” said Bill Walker, township manager for Horsham Township in Montgomery County.

He said the township was gathering information about how the camera program would operate, including whether it would be cost efficient to use them in Horsham.

Even in bigger cities, the costs of red light cameras can be unsustainable. Los Angeles recently shut down its red light cameras, because the cost of their operations — and the litigation from challenges to the validity of citations — proved to be too much.

In Delaware — which has a suburban red light camera program managed at the state level — there has been a 41 percent reduction in red light violations at intersections with cameras installed and only a 7 percent reduction in accidents, according to AAA.

The analysis from AAA shows that Philadelphia is making enough profit to be sustainable for now, but in the long term the city might have to put cameras at new intersections to keep generating enough money, Robinson said.

Two more intersections were added last year, and three more will be added this year, bringing the overall total to 24 intersections with cameras in the City of Brotherly Love.

The most revenue is generated by cameras in center city near City Hall, according to the Philadelphia Parking Authority. At one intersection just south of City Hall, red light cameras issued more than 33,600 citations in 2011 and — at $100 per ticket — generated more than $3.3 million in revenue.

In 2011, PennDOT took in more than $7.6 million from the red light cameras in Philadelphia alone, which generated more than $13.7 million in fines and cost about $6 million to operate.

The authority collected around 80 percent of all fines last year, according to the report.

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Eric Boehm is a reporter for PA Independent. He can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com or at (717) 350-0963.

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