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After decline, red-light running on the rise again in Tampa

TAMPA — Red-light running is back on the rise in Tampa, bucking the theory that red-light cameras are changing driver behavior.

Almost 60,000 red light camera tickets were issued in Tampa in 2015, according to data from American Traffic Solutions, the Arizona company that operates the city’s 57 cameras. That’s an increase of almost 44 percent over the previous year.

“I think what it shows is we haven’t accomplished our mission yet,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who has long maintained the cameras save lives. “We still have people running red lights; they’re doing it blatantly.”

More red light runners will mean a small windfall for the city and ATS. Even after the state’s cut of $83 from every $158 ticket, revenue for a 12-month period that ended Sept. 30 will amount to just below $3 million.

Most of that money, about $2.3 million, will go to ATS for rental of cameras and fees for processing citations. That leaves about $680,000 for city coffers.

The rash of red-light running reverses a recent trend of better driving.

Almost 62,000 citations were issued based on camera data in 2012, the first full year of the program. That number fell to 41,600 in 2014.

Advocates said that was proof the cameras are encouraging drivers to brake rather than accelerate when they see a yellow light. Critics said a more likely explanation is a 2013 Florida Department of Transportation mandate to lengthen yellow-light durations so motorists have more time to react to a changing stop signals. They say the cameras are used by cities as a revenue generator.

Tampa Police Department officers review video of potential violations submitted from ATS. Department officials said there has been no change in this process to account for the rise in tickets.

“The bottom line is that people are running red lights and we’re doing our best to discourage that behavior,” said Stephen Hegarty, Tampa police spokesman.

Cheaper gas prices and Tampa’s rising population may mean more drivers are on the road, which could account for some of the increase.

Data from ATS sensors show traffic volume at the 22 city intersections monitored by cameras averaged 12 million vehicles per month in 2013. That rose to 15.4 million vehicles the following year.

But traffic volumes have not risen since then, camera data shows.

“We do not see any particular relationship between the number of citations and traffic volumes,” said Pei-Sung Lin, a program director with the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida.

Officials from ATS have their own theory about the rise in red light running: Drivers have now become accustomed to longer yellow light times and are more confident they can get past the stop bar before the light turns red.

The company has seen the number of violations per camera across Florida rise from 2.5 to 3.3 per day, said Charles Territo, ATS senior vice president of marketing and communications.

“Declaring victory over red-light running by lengthening the amber time is like declaring victory over obesity by buying larger clothes,” Territo said. “The clothes will feel more comfortable for a while but if you don’t change your eating behavior after a while the larger clothes aren’t going to fit anymore either.”

The future of cameras in Tampa and other cities in Florida remains in doubt.

A bill filed in the Florida Senate by State Sen. Jeff Brandes R-St. Petersburg, would require local governments to phase out cameras by 2017. The bill cleared the Senate Transportation Committee but has yet to be placed on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee agenda.

A Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles study released last month also questioned whether cameras have made intersections safer. It found that intersection crashes at monitored intersections rose by almost 15 percent after cameras were installed.

The study included eight of Tampa’s 22 monitored intersections, where the number of rear end crashes rose from 17 to 26 after cameras were installed — a 52 percent increase.

Cameras also face a legal challenge from a coalition of attorneys who have sued ATS and about 70 Florida communities seeking a refund for all drivers ticketed based on red-light camera data.

Some cities are not waiting.

On Tuesday night, the small, southern Pinellas city of South Pasadena voted to scrap its camera program, following similar moves by St. Petersburg, Gulfport and Temple Terrace.

South Pasadena commissioners voted 4-1 against renewing the city’s contract with ATS, which expires in March. The cameras will be shuttered March 27.

The city’s five cameras brought in about $2.9 million over five years, said Mayor Dan Calabria, a long-time camera critic who voted against the cameras.

“Not a nickel was used for public safety,” Calabria said. “If there was any real validity for it then it would be a requirement that the revenue be used for vehicle and pedestrian safety.”

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