What now for the red light cameras?

Barring anything unusual, red light cameras will be history in Houston, but their effect will be felt for some time.

City Controller Ronald Green said the loss of the devices would amount to a $10 million shortfall in revenues, a sharp decrease that would greatly complicate efforts to close a shortfall that was already nearing $80 million.

“We’re going to have to cut expenses,” he said. “We need to really start talking about the fact that furloughs and layoffs may really be a potential option. … It’s now time for drastic cuts.”

I don’t care to re-litigate the talking point about the cameras being a “revenue grab” – no one’s mind will be changed at this point – but however you felt about them they were a revenue source, and the loss of that revenue has to be made up somehow. I’m not looking forward to seeing how that happens.

Jim McGrath, a spokesman for Keep Houston Safe, said he did not anticipate that the political action committee — backed by the Arizona-based company that runs the city’s red-light camera program – would try to fight the election results in court.

“We’re disappointed,” he said. “We put together an unprecedented coalition of police and firefighters and hospital groups who told the truth. … At the end of the day, the voters got the last word.”

There was litigation filed before the election to prevent the referendum from being on the ballot, as well as questions about the legality of the petition effort. I could not tell from the story where any of that stood, so I sent an email to McGrath to ask. He said that his understanding was that the case had been vacated, and that as of Tuesday night no one had any intention of challenging the result. A statement released by the camera vendor doesn’t give any indication of further action, either. Personally, I’m not sure that the matter should be dropped. I feel like the legal issues that were raised by KHS and by Council members like Anne Clutterbuck deserve some kind of official answer in the event this sort of thing ever happens again. But I understand why no one wants to pursue it. Like it or not, the election was won fair and square, and you have to respect that.

I have to wonder, though, if throwing in a few negative ads with all those “firefighters and doctors telling the truth” might have had an effect on the outcome. McGrath and company weren’t shy about questioning the Kubosh brothers’ financial motives for opposing the cameras to reporters. Given what Controller Green says, it’s not hard to imagine an attack mailer in which said financial interests of “greedy lawyers” are pitched against those of Houston’s taxpayers. “They want to line their pockets while costing you money!” or some such could have been the tag line. It would have been sleazy and hypocritical, of course, and would have drawn the usual tongue-clucking from various media types – yeah, me too – but I bet it would have moved a few votes.

That’s just Wednesday morning quarterbacking, and it’s easy for me to say. A better question is what happens to the cameras now, and what happens if you get a ticket from one before they come down? My guess is that the status quo will remain until Council takes some action to begin the process of removing them. The city could have them turned off immediately, but I don’t think they are required to do so. As long as there’s some sort of good faith, on a reasonable schedule effort to get rid of them, I suspect that would be considered kosher by a judge. So don’t go running any more lights than you would have before.

UPDATE: And here we get some answers.

Although voters abolished Houston’s red light camera system Tuesday, the 70 cameras have the green light to keep recording traffic violations for months as the city weighs a legal strategy for exiting its contract with the firm operating the cameras, city officials say.

Anti-camera activists slammed the delay Wednesday, insisting on immediately terminating the five-year contract — whatever the cost – with ATS, the Arizona firm that manages Houston’s system. The May 2009 contract has a termination clause that requires the city to provide the company with a 120-day notice of cancellation, a period when the cameras will still be in full operation and civil fines issued, according to the city attorney.

“This issue is over, “ said attorney Paul Kubosh, who with brother Michael helped mount the successful campaign against the cameras. “This is not a legal issue, this is a political issue now. The voters don’t care what the price of tea is in China. They don’t care what the contract says. … They want the cameras gone and just pay the damages.“

Apparently, we’re all Veruca Salt now. This just confirms my belief that perhaps the campaign for the cameras should have talked a bit about the costs involved in being forced to remove them.

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7 Responses to What now for the red light cameras?

  1. robert kane says:

    Just about every story I have read about about this talks about the revenue shortfall it is going to cause, no mention of safety, hmmm, what was its true purpose then? If anyone has ever been to Mexico, I like how their traffic lights blink the yellow light before changing to red, gives more time to slow/stop for the impending red. Or a lot of the newer lights we see (like downtown) that have the seconds counting for the pedestrian’s… you know when the light will be changing….the quick yellow to red is what needs to be changed, IMHO.

    I hear that the revenue was $10 million a year the city will lose… I think that’s a gross revenue number which then had associated expenses and then 1/2 of the net revenue was supposed to go the the state for trauma centers (yeah, right).

    So the actual loss is less than everyone is talking about, albeit there will be a loss.

    I am NOT a Perry fan by any means but a few of his TV ads did point out some of the things people ignore that Bill White did while Mayor that will have an everlasting affect on the city.

  2. I think it will just be an excuse when they start making hard cuts they should have done anyway. Now they can blame it on the voters. I think the 120 days notice they have to give should be given right now and it should take no longer than that to bring them down. They are having the same discussions here in Baytown. Seems to me they all should have already had provisions in place for what to do if the cameras get voted out. Guess they all figured with ATS spending a few million to buy the vote they couldn’t lose.

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  4. Craig says:

    I realize you’ve probably never met the Kuboshes, and have no concept of their motivation. But that doesn’t seem to have prevented you from wishing the camera company had run LYING AND DECEPTIVE ads about the Kubosh’s motivations.

    Get it straight.

    The Kuboshes have not made or lost one dollar from red light cameras being installed in Houston. No cops were pulled from traffic enforcement after the cameras were installed. There was not less business because of the cameras. It bothered me throughout the campaign that the Chronicle constantly referred to the Kubosh’s alleged vested interests whenever they brought up the millions of dollars the camera company had raked in, without once explaining how the Kuboshes could even possibly have made any money when the cameras were removed.

    I know this may challenge your preconceived notions, but Paul Kubosh is the kind of guy to stand up for people when they are getting screwed. He felt that the people of Houston were getting a raw deal – being regressively taxed by a system that created more, not less accidents. This system privatized and outsourced to an Arizona-based company a government function, and made the city and the company rich. The very worst thing a government can do is to profit at the expense of public safety. There have been numerous studies around the country (and the only City of Houston-commissioned study) which showed that accidents increased after red light cameras were installed. And the cameras clearly violate our rights to confront our accuser and to due process of law. Every notice ever issued also violated clear Texas state law. These are the real reasons that the Kuboshes fought this fight.

    The story is one of David versus Goliath. They took on all the entrenched money and power, and won.

    If you really want to explore who had a vested interest, ask yourself why lawyers like Jim Adler were supporting the cameras (Answer: he advertises everyday seeking people injured in car accidents. Accidents are GOOD for his business, especially ones caught on tape). Ask yourself why the police and firefighters’ unions, but not the rank and file, were for the cameras (Answer: they received money from them), ask yourself why the hospital district was for them (answer: they were supposed to receive money from them). The City’s and the camera company’s financial interests in the cameras was their primary motivation. It always was. Perhaps some people were distracted by the red light camera company’s lies, but most were not. I don’t think adding more lies to their pack of lies would have helped.

    I realize this is just a blog, but I hoped for better, Charles. This is not a liberal or conservative issue, this is a basic fairness issue. Many people read your blog, and I hope you use this power with appropriate gravity in the future.

    Now let’s get the city to explore REAL solutions to red light running and accidents, like lengthening yellow lights and the all-red time by a fraction of a second. Nobody likes people to run red lights. We all have to drive these streets. We all have family. But let’s work on SOLUTIONS, not add more problems to the mix.

  5. Craig,

    First, I said that in retrospect, the financial angle should have been part of the campaign. I was surprised to hear Controller Green talk about possible furloughs as a result of Prop 3. I knew there would be a hit to the city, but I did not expect that. That should have been in the campaign.

    Second, questioning your opponents’ motives is Politics 101. Were you not paying attention to the Prop 1 campaign? A big part of the opposition to that was pointing out that the engineers who had put the proposition on the ballot would profit from the construction work that would result from it. It is neither scurrilous nor underhanded to note that as traffic attorneys, the Kuboshes had a financial interest at stake. I mean hell, the Kuboshes questioned the city’s motives for having the cameras from Day One. Are you saying that can only be a one-way street?

    Sure, the camera company had a lot of money at stake in this. Everyone knew that, and the Kuboshes certainly and properly made an issue of it. Frankly, the most likely reason why the Keep Houston Safe PAC stuck with the positive safety-oriented message is because if they brought up financial interests, it would make theirs a more central part of the campaign, which I’m sure they wanted to avoid. As I said, it’s easy to second guess someone else’s strategy.

    I’m sorry that you feel that the Kuboshes have been unfairly maligned, but that’s not how I see it.

  6. James Mullins says:

    I truely believe what Robert Kane has stated to be true, the overall revenue shouldnt have been the issue here, it should have been the safety and still then, the light flashing on me when someone else runs the red light scares me where i have almost wrecked trying to figure out what was going on… I think that within itself, the lights are a safety issue. Also, taking into consideration that you when doing a budget for something like this, there will be misnomers at every turn and our (sarcastic) lovely mayor, shouldnt count her eggs before they hatch. And dont get me started on the rain Tax… that is a farce… let em ask this question, will we get credit when its not raining, and will you raise the people that work at the water plants yearly slaries with the water hike?

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