September 07, 2006
Red light revenue

Now that the red light cameras are operational, how much revenue will they generate for the city? Probably more than was budgeted for.

Police estimate about a quarter of violators who are issued tickets will pay the $75 civil fine. But in several other cities that use the same camera system, fine collection is as high as 90 percent.
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While the city's revenue estimate for the program once it's in full swing is about $6.7 million a year, a collection rate of 90 percent would bring in more than triple that amount - about $24 million.

Houston Police Department Budget Director Larry Yium said officials picked a low estimate, which he acknowledged was arbitrary, because they weren't sure what to expect.

"We took a very conservative approach to both the revenue and the expenditures because we did not want any surprises," Yium said. "The potential for the revenue side to grow is a whole lot greater than the expenditure side."

The system is designed to pay for itself; the city has agreed to pay the contractor about $2.5 million annually.

Mayor Bill White and Police Chief Harold Hurtt have touted the system as a way to make streets safer by reducing the number of crashes at intersections as drivers change their behavior in response to the cameras.

Critics say the system has more to do with filling city coffers.

"Of course it's about revenue and not about safety," said Greg Mauz of the Texas chapter of the National Motorists Association, who has written a book about red-light cameras.

I don't doubt that kind of money is very attractive. It's not that big a piece of the city's budget, which was $1.5 billion in 2004, but it would have made a decent-sized dent in the $74 million shortfall that had been projected for that fiscal year. It's basically free money, and the city can go to that well quite a bit with all the heavily-trafficked intersections in this town and the limitless supply of bad drivers that live here. I don't see it being a particularly stable source of revenue, at least not at that level - even here, people will moderate their driving habits over time - so however strong the temptation will be to depend on revenue like this, it needs to be resisted, and this particular flow treated as found money for one-off stuff. That's a tall order for any legislative body, and I'm quite sure we'll see financial shenanigans played with these funds no matter what safeguards are put into place.

Having said that, I disagree that red light cameras are "all about revenue and not about safety". For one thing, we don't know yet what effect these cameras will have on accident and injury rates at the intersections where they've been installed. We're supposed to get a study of such effects, at which time we may be able to judge whether there is a real public safety benefit and if so if it's worth the cost of the cameras and the loss of privacy. I'm reserving judgment until I see what the numbers say. In the meantime, I can accept that public safety is the motivation for the cameras as stated. When and if the evidence says otherwise, then such statements can be dismissed.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 07, 2006 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack

Having said that, I disagree that red light cameras are "all about revenue and not about safety".

The "all about revenue" contention is sort of a straw man. I have no doubts that most of our elected officials who came up with this policy are genuinely concerned about reducing red-light running in the city of Houston.

But, I also have no doubts that some elected officials were interested in the revenue stream as well. A system that would have more conclusively demonstrated guilt (a photo of the driver in addition to the license plate) was rejected, largely because the vendor said it wasn't necessary (and would therefore cut into the revenue stream!).

And the signage warning of the red light cameras is minimal, with no plans to add to the signage (according to a Chronicle reporter). Since we know Mayor White can take on an education effort when he wants to (the panhandling one being most recent), the refusal to make it more clear at dangerous intersections that people WILL be ticketed if they break the law seems odd, and gives fodder to those who think public officials are not being entirely forthright when THEY say it's ALL about safety.

Posted by: Kevin Whited on September 7, 2006 7:38 AM

In general, I agree with Kevin that the elected officials are concerned with safety, and that at least a few officials liked the happy consequence of the program producing revenue. My question is, why is generating revenue from bad behavior considered wrong in just this instance? Traffic tickets generate tens of millions of dollars annually. Every criminal court assesses fines for criminal acts, especially misdemeanors. The State has raised taxes on cigarettes in an effort to curtail my LEGAL act of smoking.

The revenue argument is definitely the straw man. Frankly, if the only surveillance the government conducted on me was photographing my license plate, I would sleep much better at night.

Posted by: RedScare on September 7, 2006 8:42 AM

What struck me from this article is how quickly anyone was in making projections for revenue. I mean, the cameras have been up for a day or two and the Chronicle is already throwing around the $24 million amount?

Shouldn't we give the project, I dunno ... a good solid week at least? How about a month? How about a quarter of a year?

It wouldn't surprise me much if the original projections are on the low side looking at the math. But I'd be as shocked to see the current trends hold as much as any disco-hating music fan would be to see record sales trends from the late 70s hold.

Of course, I'm also surprised to see that anyone would actually register a complaint that not enough signage was present to alert people that the law will be enforced. But that's another story.

Posted by: Greg Wythe on September 7, 2006 9:06 AM