St. Petersburg works kinks out of red light camera program, but may not be enough to survive

7:14 PM, Jan 16, 2014   |    comments
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ST. PETERSBURG, Florida -- Following another city council committee meeting dominated by the red light camera debate, its remains unclear if camera opponents have enough support in city hall to end the controversial program.

On Thursday, city staff told councilmembers that the red light cameras (RLC) in St. Petersburg have reduced crashes at impacted intersections by more than 40% in the last two years.

But St. Pete's leading camera critic, statistician and businessman Matt Florell, disputed the city's methods and conclusions. Florell, the thorn in city engineers' sides at times, has caught and broadcast every misstep of the city's traffic department since launching the camera program in 2011.

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Red light cameras in St. Pete have netted the city more than a million dollars in each of the last two years.  Four of the eight current city councilmembers have publicly opposed the current program, but five are needed to change the policy.

"I've always been uncomfortable with this program," said councilwoman Darden Rice.  "It just seems to be more about profit than safety."

Camera critics eye two councilmembers as possible swing votes to turn the tides of the debate: Charlie Gerdes, who Thursday asked pointed questions of city staffers, but seemed to indicate interest in fining law-breakers; and Karl Nurse, who missed the committee meeting.

Gerdes' support to fine guilty drivers was echoed by councilmembers Jim Kennedy, an attorney, and Bill Dudley, a former coach and driver's education teacher.

In the meantime, the city continues to fix problems with the program as they pop up. When 10 Investigates asked about a high number of right turn on red tickets last summer, the city started rejecting more citations. When FDOT instructed cities to meet new yellow light minimums last fall, St. Petersburg added time to a number of intersections. And when Florell identified a yellow light at 38th St. and 1st Ave. S. that was still too short by a fraction of a second, the city fixed the problem again.

Kennedy told 10 News he was concerned the "rolling right" reforms were giving drivers the impression they no longer needed to stop at red lights.  While the red light camera laws discourage aggressive ticketing on right turns, the law requires all drivers to come to a full stop before making a right turn.

There was, however, no talk at Thursday's meeting about a possible grace period for red-light runners, a topic Florell had hoped the city would consider. According to WPTV-TV, Palm Beach County does not issue automated tickets to drivers who run a red light by 0.5 seconds or less.

Mayor Rick Kriseman, who made a rare appearance at Thursday's council committee meeting, has stressed his support of the cameras, but only for safety, not for big profits. He has already instituted a change when it comes to a long-standing city policy of on-duty police officers avoiding $158 fines when they run lights - even if there was no emergency. 

St. Petersburg's director of transportation and parking management, Joe Kubicki, said the city still had a reputation for being particularly unfriendly toward pedestrians and cyclists.  But improvements over the last decade have helped.

Kubicki also explained numerous countermeasures the city instituted prior to installing red light cameras to try and make intersections safer.  Federal standards recommend exhausting other options prior to installing red light cameras, which many other communities in Florida did not do.

St. Petersburg councilmembers will workshop the issue with staff again in February before any motions to change the program are considered.

Contact 10 Investigates reporter Noah Pransky via Facebook or through his updates on Twitter.


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