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Los Angeles might expand red-light camera program

The plan would boost revenue, but city officials say it's safety-driven.

February 03, 2010|By Rich Connell

Los Angeles' red-light traffic camera program, which officials report netted more than $6 million last year after expenses, could be significantly expanded under a new contract to be negotiated over the next 14 months, records and interviews show.

While adding more cameras could offer a welcome boost to city revenue in the midst of a fiscal crisis, officials say any expansion will be based on safety considerations.

No goal has been set, but internal City Hall discussions have included the possibility of adding cameras to blocks of eight intersections at a time and eventually doubling the overall reach of the program to 64 intersections, Los Angeles Police Department officials told The Times.

Fresh details of the discussions emerged as the Police Commission on Tuesday sent the City Council a recommendation to issue bid requests from vendors to operate -- and presumably enlarge -- the program starting next year.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for traffic cameras to be modified to also catch speeders, part of an effort to raise $300 million in fines to help close the state's budget shortfall.

Los Angeles officials have voiced mixed reactions but taken no formal action on the proposal.

As for red-light cameras, critics contend that the safety benefits have been overstated and that the cameras chiefly are used to fatten government coffers. Those complaints have grown louder as red-light ticket fines have climbed sharply in recent years. They now total more than $500 in Los Angeles County when traffic school fees are included.

But LAPD officials and some experts say photo enforcement reduces potentially serious red-light-running accidents, changes driver behavior for the better and frees up patrol officers for other tasks.

And after struggling with construction delays and start-up and early operating expenses, Los Angeles' red-light cameras have begun producing a sorely needed revenue surplus at a time when city programs and payrolls are being slashed.

Beyond payments of about $2 million to the city's camera vendor and $1.2 million for Police Department costs, the city's 32 camera-equipped intersections generated $6.4 million in net revenue in 2009, said LAPD Sgt. Matthew MacWillie, who oversees the program. The LAPD issues about 3,600 photo enforcement tickets a month, records show.

The program's financial turnaround can be partially attributed to a decision 18 months ago to more than double fines for rolling right-turn violations, which MacWillie has acknowledged account for most violations caught by the cameras.

Previously, Los Angeles had been the only city in the county to charge right turn violations under a vehicle code section that carried a $156 fine. When the LAPD brought its ticketing practices in line with other agencies, right turn fines jumped to $381. The city's share of the fines grew from $58 to nearly $150.

At least one City Council member, Valley representative Dennis Zine, said pursuing bids to continue or expand the photo enforcement program is premature.

He said a detailed study of overall accident rates at photo-equipped intersections was still in the works. "I don't want to do anything until we get the results of that inquiry," he said.

Zine, a former LAPD traffic cop who sits on the council's Public Safety Committee, sought the analysis last year after a local television station reported that the city's red-light cameras haven't always reduced collisions. The LAPD's study is not expected to be completed for about a month.

But MacWillie said Tuesday that data show overall accidents, as well as red-light-running accidents, have declined at camera-equipped intersections.

Considered a key city expert on photo enforcement, MacWillie also said speed cameras can be a valuable traffic enforcement tool if properly focused on safety and altering driver behavior. Approximately 40 people die annually in speed-related accidents in the city, he said.

Zine said putting speed cameras at intersections is an "absurd idea" that would undermine the traditional focus of police officers on public safety.

The governor is "just saying this is a revenue producer," he said.

"With that in mind, why don't we just charge everyone $10 when they start their engine?"

rich.connell@latimes.com

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