A Tuesday vote could spell the end of Red Bank's controversial traffic control devices

A Tuesday vote could spell the end of Red Bank's controversial traffic control devices

September 2nd, 2012 by Kate Harrison Belz in Local Regional News

Signs posted on Dayton Boulevard, as well as others throughout Red Bank, Tenn., inform motorists that cameras are used in traffic law enforcement.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Traffic light enforcement camera equipment is seen Thursday in Red Bank at the intersection of Dayton Boulevard and Signal Mountain Road.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

WHAT'S NEXT

The Red Bank Board of Commissioners will vote whether to discontinue the contract with American Traffic Solutions at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Red Bank City Hall, 3117 Dayton Blvd.

BY THE NUMBERS

Citations issued from Red Bank traffic cameras:

2006 - 9,883

2007 - 11,101

2008 - 14,018

2009 - 17,744

2010 - 9,403

2011 - 7,009

Total: 69,158

Source: City of Red Bank Police Department

QUICK FACTS

• 87 percent of those issued a violation in Red Bank haven't received another one over the life of the program.

• There has been a 42 percent reduction in red light-running at the intersection of Ashland Terrace and Dayton Boulevard in seven years.

• In the last year , Red Bank police have requested traffic camera video 16 times to assist in investigations of accidents, hit-and-runs and other incidents.

• Fridays between 3 and 4 p.m. are the most dangerous days of the week for red light-running in Red Bank.

Source: American Traffic Solutions

DECLINING CITATIONS, DECLINING PROFITS

Annual budget figures show that revenues from Red Bank's traffic camera have fallen over the last four years, particularly in 2011, when state officials outlawed cameras that recorded right-on-red violations. Each ticket comes with a $50 fine.

Year // Camera fees // Expenses

2009 // $579,175 // $387,070

2010 // $500,325 // $337,480

2011 // $309,454 // $249,810

2012* // $245,594 // $188,735

  • To date

Source: City of Red Bank

POLL: Should Red Bank pull the plug on its traffic cameras?

During the past six years, tens of thousands of vehicle owners have opened their mailboxes to the dreaded envelope: a ticket from one of Red Bank's traffic cameras.

In all, more than 69,000 citations have been issued. That's enough to give each and every Red Bank resident a ticket at least five times.

But only 16 percent of the citations were issued to Red Bank residents, according to data kept by the private Arizona company that runs the cameras.

"The citizens of Red Bank aren't the ones breaking the law," said Charlie Territo, spokesman for American Traffic Solutions. "The program has been successful in changing their behavior. Nine out of 10 violations are issued to residents who don't live in Red Bank at all."

That could be seen as a sign of the cameras' effectiveness. Or it could be seen as a strike against a small island of a city hoping to attract visitors as it seeks revitalization.

"People are avoiding driving through [Red Bank] because they're afraid of getting a ticket," said Mayor Monty Millard, who has been anti-camera since they were installed in 2006. "It has given us this unwelcoming reputation."

Many Red Bank residents, business owners and visitors have long gnashed their teeth over the cameras, saying the devices have given the city a black eye.

They say it's unconstitutional, "Big Brother"-type law enforcement. They say the cameras have driven away business and that dozens of motorists vowed publicly never to drive through Red Bank after getting tickets. In 2010, the city had to battle a class action $10 million lawsuit about the cameras, a suit that was dismissed by a judge.

But camera proponents say the streets are safer because of the devices, which are installed along three of the city's busiest intersections and in one roving van. Drivers have changed risky habits, supporters say, and the cameras have freed police to do more pressing work.

The cameras also have raised vital revenue -- more than $500,000 -- without squeezing taxpayers, advocates say.

Both sides may be right. Or it may still be too early to tell. But Millard isn't waiting to see.

He hopes the City Commission will pull the plug on the cameras Tuesday.

"The cameras are hurting the city," said Millard, who is up for re-election in November.

Red Bank is just one stage where the national controversy over speed cameras continues to play out.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 12 states have passed laws that prohibit the use of speed cameras, while nine have prohibited red-light cameras. The rest either have no laws to address the issue or already allow cameras to operate.

Alabama law permits red-light cameras limited to particular areas. In Georgia, red-light cameras are permitted statewide, but not speed cameras.

Tennessee permits both speed and red-light cameras. In 2008, a state appellate court ruling affirmed that traffic cameras and the ticket process are legal, even if the vehicle owner isn't driving at the time the violation occurs.

In 2010, the drama played out in the Tennessee General Assembly as legislators worked to standardize how unmanned traffic cameras can be used.

Some lawmakers wanted to do away with cameras completely, but Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, vice chairman of the House Transportation Committee, argued there are merits to the programs as long as they are operated for safety purposes and not financial gain.

"I don't like the idea of people getting traffic citations, but I don't like the idea of people violating the law," said Dean, formerly the mayor of East Ridge and a former Chattanooga police lieutenant. "I see both sides. I want people to come to my city -- but I want them to abide by the laws in my city."

The state law now regulates how fees are administered, restricts automated right-on-red tickets and stipulates that traffic engineering studies be conducted before cameras are installed to prove the cameras are there for safety reasons.

But that hasn't dampened the traffic camera ire in Red Bank, where the issue has become an intensely political one. In 2010, John Roberts -- now Red Bank's vice mayor -- beat out then-mayor Joe Glasscock with a strong anti-camera campaign. He said he plans to make the motion to can the cameras in the vote Tuesday night.

"I'm ready to get rid of them. They're going," he said. "They've been here long enough."

MIXED REVIEWS

If Red Bank votes to deactivate the cameras, it will not be the first local city to do so. In 2008, Dalton, Ga., officials voted unanimously to remove its cameras, which were set up at five city intersections. Mayor David Pennington said he has no regrets.

"Besides making people happy, we have not seen any major changes with them gone," Pennington said. "It's had no impact on us financially, and we've seen no spike of traffic accidents at those intersections. ... We would never dream of putting them back up anywhere."

Cleveland, Tenn., ended its traffic camera program in 2010 after 18 months of operation. The company running the program cited financial loss as its main reason for discontinuing the service, but Assistant City Manager Melinda Carroll said the city did not renew the contract because things were "so up in the air about traffic cameras" at the state level.

"We actually did see a drop in accidents at those intersections," she said. "But there were a lot of questions in Tennessee state law at the time about the legalities."

Chattanooga, meanwhile, is expanding its program. The city, which first installed its cameras a year after Red Bank, now has 11 traffic cameras and four speed vans.

Officials may bring in more, saying the cameras are putting a discernible -- and in some locations, dramatic -- dent in accident counts.

"We feel like it's been very worthwhile, and been a very effective solution," said John Van Winkle, Chattanooga's traffic engineer. "We're not trying to blanket the city. We're putting the cameras where the problems are. We look at problems where there is a pronounced accident history."

Van Winkle highlights improvement on the S-curves of Hixson Pike, where accident numbers plunged from 100 in 2001 to just two in 2011.

Unlike Red Bank, the revenue from Chattanooga's cameras goes to pay for a driver education program, which Van Winkle said has kept the city from getting as much grief about the tickets as Red Bank has.

Though Red Bank has felt the backlash of being considered a speed trap, some say it only got the black eye because it was one of the first local towns to adopt such a program in 2005.

In 2010, Millard was the only commissioner of five to vote against a 12-year contract extension with American Traffic Solutions, the Arizona-based company that provided the cameras.

The contract between Red Bank and American Traffic Solutions stipulates that either party can sever it without financial penalty on each three-year anniversary of its signing. The first anniversary is this January, but city officials must give the company 90 days notice of their decision.

Two of the commissioners who voted to extend the contract in 2010 -- Floy Pierce and Ruth Jeno -- still are on the commission. Pierce said the buildup of complaints from local business owners has shifted her perspective on the matter.

"I'm not against the cameras, but if it would help those businesses and economy, I am willing to take them out," she said.

Jeno said she has not changed her mind on the importance of the cameras, though she would like to renegotiate the city's contract with American Traffic Solutions.

"There's pros and cons to keeping those cameras," Jeno said. "I still think they're a benefit to the city, and I don't think they hurt the businesses in Red Bank. I think they have helped safety."

Red Bank Police Chief Tim Christol said the city does not have statistical data that shows the number of accidents at the intersections since the cameras were installed. But Christol said national studies he has reviewed show that overall accidents decrease with cameras.

"Our responsibility is public safety, and I think the cameras have had an impact in just the knowledge drivers have," he said. "It makes them more aware and cautious."

ATS representatives say a shrinking number of citations is the paramount sign that the program is working.

"Red Bank has had a successful road safety program," said Territo, the ATS spokesman. "The goal of any road safety camera program is to reduce the number of violations and to change driver behavior over time. And in Red Bank, that's exactly what's happened."

Territo points to the fact that 87 percent of offenders issued citations have not gotten repeat tickets as proof that behavior is changing. At one intersection, there has been a 42 percent drop in the number of cars running red lights.

"The measure of success isn't the amount of revenue gained, but the number of collisions prevented," Territo said.

HURTING BUSINESS?

Red Bank Wine and Spirits seems like it's on prime real estate, located near three of the busiest intersections along Dayton Boulevard: Morrison Springs Road, Signal Mountain Road and Ashland Terrace.

But the business is also situated in the crosshairs of the city's speed cameras, located at each red light. The cameras have taken a notable toll on business, said owner Brian Macphee.

"It just killed the traffic flow," Macphee insisted.

He has former customers come in to tell him they stopped coming into town because of the threat of a $50 ticket.

"Red Bank is a dying community anyway, and I think [the cameras] were a big nail in a very sturdy coffin," he said. "So getting rid of it may bring some life back, or just stop the decay from progressing."

Customers getting a trim at Upper Cutt & Co. on Dayton Boulevard frequently gripe about the cameras and tickets, said stylist Ginger Docherty.

"Folks just want to detour now. A lot of my customers talk about how frustrated they are," she said.

Other businesses report similar woes, according to Millard, who said he personally polled about 25 business owners in the district.

Overall traffic counts in the city have dropped steadily since the cameras' installation, though it's hard to tell if that's because of the cameras or because of the economy, which soured shortly after the cameras were installed -- or both.

Jeno said she has not seen definitive evidence that the cameras are a major factor.

"I know a lot of business owners argue with me, but that is how I see it," she said.

Mitch McGrath, owner of Mitchell Robert Studio Salon on Dayton Boulevard, said he has not discerned any negative impact on his business as a result of the cameras.

"I'm sure it's made people mad, but people still come here," said McGrath. "That being said, I'll be glad if they're gone -- because you never know."

While the cameras' impact on business is debatable, their contribution to Red Bank's government revenues is pronounced. The fees have provided the Red Bank government with a stream of revenue that officials have said helped avoid a tax increase and are vital to keep the city running.

During 2011, Red Bank collected more than $300,000 from tickets issued from the cameras. ATS collects 40 to 60 percent of the cameras' revenues each month, according to newspaper archives. That has left the city with an average of about $100,000 in traffic camera revenues annually over the past few years.

A drop in the number of tickets issued and fines collected in the last two years could be because drivers are learning. But a major factor in the decrease was a 2010 law from the Tennessee General Assembly banning cities from allowing cameras to cite motorists for failing to come to a complete stop before right turns.

By 2011, the number of citations issued fell to 7,009 -- less than half the peak total in 2009. Revenues are about half what they were five years ago.

Roberts said he isn't worried about lost revenue.

"Hopefully we'll make up that loss in sales tax," he said. "Maybe this will get more people to come into our city. We need to market our city, and those cameras were pretty bad for marketing."