ST. PETERSBURG — The city council is set to vote yet again on the future of the controversial red-light camera program after officials Thursday admitted that yellow light times were too short at two more intersections policed by cameras.
Stoplight timings at the two intersections ignored that the roads are angled slightly downhill, meaning drivers should be given more time to stop or to get through the intersections. The lights were off by no more than two-tenths of a second, but city data shows that was enough for hundreds of motorists to misjudge the stoplight and end up with a $158 citation.
City council member Charlie Gerdes said the city should own up and reimburse drivers.
“We made a mistake; the city made a mistake,” Gerdes said.
But Mayor Rick Kriseman said the city will not offer refunds. The stoplight timings were approved by the Florida Department of Transportation, he said. He also pointed out that most of the revenue from fines has already been remitted to the state, making it unlikely the city could get the money back.
“Our attorneys feel comfortable, as do I, from a risk standpoint,” Kriseman said. “We were following state procedures and acting with state approval.”
The error in the yellow light timings only came to light after Matt Florell, a local software company owner and opponent of red-light cameras, paid $600 for an engineering study on First Avenue South and 34th Street that showed the intersection was configured wrongly.
Since 2011, at least 778 drivers have received citations for $158 fines after misjudging the stoplight by one- or two-tenths of a second, the margin by which that signal was in error.
His findings prompted city officials to check the other nine red-light camera intersections, which revealed errors in the timing on the southbound approaches to 22nd Avenue and 34th Street South, as well as 38th Avenue North and 34th Street North.
Controversy has dogged the city’s camera program since it was introduced in 2011, with critics deriding it as a revenue generator for the state and cities.
Still, city officials say the cameras are reducing accidents caused by red-light running and cite a 28 percent drop in the number of citations as proof that the cameras are changing driver behavior. They also say crashes at intersections are down.
Kriseman took the unusual step of attending a city council workshop to express his support for keeping the cameras. Interim Police Chief David DeKay also attended the meeting at City Hall, saying cameras free up officers for other duties.
Kriseman said the cameras are not intended to make money but to make the city safer, a quality of life issue that he said will benefit the city economically.
The city has no plans to add more cameras but will continue to evaluate whether the cameras are deployed where they do the most good, he said.
If citations continue to decline, the cameras eventually could be taken down. “If we change behaviors, the revenue generated by this program will decrease every year until the program begins to cost us money,” Kriseman said. “When that happens, it will be time to shut the program down as we will have met our goal of significantly changing driver behaviors.”
Next week’s vote on the program will be the first since the election of Amy Foster and Darden Rice to the council. Both women said during their campaigns they are opposed to the cameras, although Rice, who accepted a $500 campaign donation from American Traffic Solution, has softened her stance since.
Despite his call for refunds, Gerdes said he will continue to support using cameras if they reduce accidents. “As long as there is one less injury, one less crash, less deaths, then I’m going to vote for them,” he said.