As Los Angeles City Hall has struggled against a sea of red ink, one financial bright spot through the long recession has been the Police Department's red-light camera program, which has seen a sharp rise in revenue, according to court data obtained by The Times.
From late 2007 to late 2009, monthly revenue from cameras, now operating at 32 city intersections, has nearly doubled from about $200,000 per month to about $400,000, according to estimates prepared by the Los Angeles County Superior Court, which processes ticket payments.
The city's income now far exceeds that of Culver City and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, both of which had often eclipsed Los Angeles in photo enforcement income, records show.
Los Angeles officials insist the program is intended to reduce accidents and save lives, although red-light camera critics contend cities are chiefly interested in raking in money from automated systems that snag violators 24 hours a day.
The improved financial performance of Los Angeles' program, one of the largest in the nation, appears to be the result of changes in program administration, not a sharp spike in violations processed through the courts, according to the records.
Last year, the city more than doubled the amount charged for most of its red-light camera tickets.
The change, based on a legal recommendation from the city attorney, affects thousands of motorists each year who make rolling right turns against red lights -- known as "California stops." According to Los Angeles Police Department estimates provided to The Times last year, about eight in 10 photo tickets were issued for right turns, which some experts say are less likely to result in serious accidents.
Most California cities had long treated right-turn infractions the same as running straight through red lights. Before the change, Los Angeles issued rolling right-turn tickets under a vehicle code section with a much lower fine.
When Los Angeles brought its fines in line with those in other cities, right-turn ticket penalties increased from $156 to $381. The city's share of each ticket payment increased from $58 to nearly $150, where it remains today.
The city also brought additional cameras online last year and has been working in recent months with the vendor to improve the system's operation, said LAPD Lt. Ron Katona. The cameras now routinely meet city performance standards, which call for 80% of violations photographed by the system to be of prosecutable quality, Katona said.
The bulk of the cash collected from red-light violations, whether caught on camera or issued by patrol officers, goes to state and county programs.
With the most recent increases, red-light ticket penalties in Los Angeles County reached an average of $446 in August -- or about $500 when drivers elect to also go through traffic school so their violations aren't reported to insurance carriers.
"They're pricing themselves to the point the average citizen can't afford it," said Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine, a one-time LAPD traffic cop. "They say the punishment must fit the crime."
Zine is exploring ways to bring down the fines on red-light camera and other high-cost moving violations, possibly by treating them as city administrative infractions, similar to parking violations. He noted that courts are overloaded and cutting back services.
The state's share of the ticket revenue would be cut back under his plan, Zine acknowledged. But there might be court system savings by moving adjudication of some violations to the city, he said.
Some violators would still get points on their driving record, he said, but "we may be able to save [them] a lot of money." On Zine's motion, the city also has ordered a detailed review of the effect red-light cameras have had on accident rates.
As early as next month, the Los Angeles Police Commission is expected to consider whether the current camera vendor's contract should be extended and/or reassigned.
The initial contractor, Nestor Traffic Systems, recently went into receivership and was taken over by a competitor, American Traffic Solutions.
The commission is also expected to begin the process of seeking new bidders for the city's photo enforcement program, which based on past experience could set off intense lobbying by top red-light camera providers. The current contract expires in April 2011, at the latest.