Tampa City Council to consider renewing red light camera program to 2016

TAMPA — The City Council today could give new life to Tampa’s red light cameras by voting to renew the program’s contract to 2016.

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The extension appears likely to pass after Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s staff met with four council members individually over past week. It would come two weeks after a 4-3 council vote against renewing the city’s contract with American Traffic Solutions of Tempe, Ariz.

Tampa has 51 cameras focused on 21 different intersections, and police say their use has raised driver awareness, reducing crashes and red light violations over time.

Council members didn’t dispute the benefits before taking their first vote on March 20, but Charlie Miranda, Yvonne Yolie Capin, Mary Mulhern and Frank Reddick voted no after saying part of the revenues should be spent on projects that further enhance pedestrian and driver safety near those intersections.

This week, Buckhorn agreed to do just that. One-fourth of camera revenue, which netted the city $1.6 million last year, would go toward such projects, he said.

“If what got us across the finish line was to give council a comfort level that a percentage of that revenue would go to traffic improvements, we’re happy to do that,” Buckhorn said Wednesday.

Buckhorn and his staff have said the city already spends plenty on transportation safety. This year’s budget includes nearly $3.7 million for such projects. The previous three years saw an additional $28.1 million in similar spending.

Virtually all of that money, however, comes from gasoline taxes, impact fees and the Florida Department of Transportation. City Council members said they wanted at least some red light camera revenue, which now goes into the city’s general fund, to be earmarked for safety projects.

Buckhorn’s administration says the camera money does go toward traffic safety by supporting operations of the city’s transportation division.

“You have to have money to run the operation in order to make the improvements,” Buckhorn said.

Council members, however, have indicated that’s not good enough. Capin describes the camera revenue as “extraordinary” money and said it’s important for the city to show the public that the camera program serves a purpose beyond generating operating income.

It does, say police, who reject about 25 percent of potential violations. Once a police officer has verified a violation, the program sends tickets to the owners of the vehicles photographed running a light. The city gets $75 of the $158 fine, with $83 going to the state. The city pays American Traffic Solutions (ATS) to run the program out of its share of the fines.

In the 2 1/2 years that the camera program has been in place, the city has more than doubled the number of cameras in use, but the number of citations issued and the amount of fines collected generally have been on a downward trend. If revenues fail to cover operating costs, city officials say ATS would absorb the shortfall.

On March 6, the St. Petersburg City Council voted 6-2 to kill its red-light camera program by Sept. 30. There, crashes rose 10 percent during the program’s first year at 10 camera-monitored intersections.

By contrast, Tampa police said crashes dropped nearly 11 percent at the first 14 intersections to get the cameras during the first year of the program. The second year, the same intersections saw a further 33 percent reduction in crashes. Meanwhile, police said collisions at 19 crash-prone intersections that don’t have cameras rose by nearly 20 percent.

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In unrelated business, the council is scheduled to consider offering more than $100,000 in cash incentives to two companies considering corporate expansions in Tampa. Both companies’ names are being kept secret under a business recruitment exemption to Florida’s public records law, but outlines of the deals provided to the council say:

• The city would provide up to $70,200 to a health plan provider that is headquartered outside the state but is looking to expand five locations either inside Florida or five other locations in Missouri. At stake are 130 jobs with an average wage of $51,500. The company expects to spend $825,000 in facilities to house the new employees, to make a decision by May 1 and to create the jobs by Dec. 31. The state would contribute another $312,000.

• The city would provide $30,000, with another $30,000 coming from Hillsborough County and $240,000 from the state, for the second project, a shared services center for a law firm with global operations. The firm expects the expansion to create 100 new jobs by 2017, with an average annual salary of at least $48,813. The preferred site is in the city and would bring an estimated $1 million in capital improvements. Florida is competing with North Carolina for the expansion.

Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403, Danielson@tampabay.com or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.