November 21, 2007
What if they're not a cash cow?

Matt Stiles points to this Governing Magazine newsbrief about red light camera revenue, and asks a simple question:

After Sioux Falls, South Dakota, installed red-light cameras at a key intersection, it saw its revenue from tickets for red-light infractions plummet.

In 2005, their first full year of operation, Sioux Falls' cameras snapped 8,000 scofflaws. In 2006, it was 5,000, and as of August of 2007, only 2,000. Almost all the money collected from red-light tickets at the intersection now goes to pay the vendor that operates the system.

Of course, those statistics mean that the cameras are having a positive effect: Accidents are down. "From my standpoint, it's purely a safety issue," says Lieutenant Jerome Miller of the Sioux Falls Police, "and it works."

Sioux Falls' fiscal experience with red-light cameras isn't unusual. In 2002, a California state auditor's report found that only two of seven cities studied were netting much money from their red-light camera programs.

As more and more localities install red-light cameras--a decade ago, only a handful of communities had them, but now there are more than 200--the revenue concerns are spreading. Just in the past few months, the subject has come up in Mesa, Arizona; Springfield, Missouri; and Garland, Texas.

There is, however, a silver lining to not making money, as Anne Fleming, a spokesperson for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a group that advocates for red-light cameras, points out. One of the central arguments against the cameras, besides the Big Brother angle, has been that they are just schemes to collect more revenue. Now, there's growing proof that that complaint is off base. "There are," Fleming says, "many officials out there who say, 'I don't want
to make any money at all.'"

They are getting their wish.

To which Stiles asks "If the cameras don't produce huge profits for the city, should they still be 'controversial'?"

Well, since I always thought the revenue-grab arguments were bogus, then my answer is that they're no more controversial now than they ever were. The same questions about privacy - how the stored images are kept, secured, and ultimately disposed of - remain. We still don't have data about what effect the cameras have on accidents and injuries - for all we know, when that data finally gets released, they'll have had no positive impact. I don't think that will be the case, but it could be. And of course, as Trafficnerd has tirelessly pointed out here and elsewhere, there were things the city could have done to reduce red light running without cameras - things like optimizing yellow light durations - which haven't been done and aren't being talked about by city officials. None of that has changed, so to my mind, the central question - Is it worth it? - is still unresolved. A such, I at least expect them to be controversial for the foreseeable future.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 21, 2007 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles