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Red-light cameras run up $7.6 million in fines in first year

Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 07:47 PM

Red-light cameras produced $7.6 million in revenue in the first year of generating tickets for Tampa's drivers.

But by the time the money was doled out, and the state, the camera vendor and others got their cut, the city only made $2.6 million.

Still, Tampa had projected $2 million a year in revenue from infractions detected by the cameras.

"In that context it's been a success, obviously," Tampa City Councilman Mike Suarez said. "And to me, if it will cause less people to get into accidents based on the facts they are not running red lights, it's a winning proposition. To me, it was never about revenue."

The city installed the cameras in hopes of reducing crashes and pedestrian fatalities at major intersections. Beginning Nov. 1, 2011, Tampa began issuing $158 citations to those whose pictures were snapped as they ran red lights.

Tampa pockets $75 of every fine collected, and the city provides $10 of that to the camera vendor. The state's general fund collects $70 from every citation, the Health Administration Trust Fund — Trauma Center takes in $10 and the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis collects $3.

The money paid to Tampa goes into the city's general fund.

Police issued more than 68,000 citations in the one-year period, about 193 a day.

"That's quite a bit," Tampa City Councilwoman Yvonne Yolie Capin said. "We are awful drivers — I'll tell you what."

Nearly 31,000 of those citations were issued for people running straight through the red lights. About 20,000 were for people making an illegal right on red. The other citations were for those turning left on red.

Budget director Dennis Rogero said that more than $1 million in citations from the cameras' first year is tied up in the court process.

The camera concept has raised plenty of objections in Florida and beyond. Some argue the cameras are a government intrusion into people's lives, that they ticket the car's owner — who might not be the driver — or that they cause more crashes as motorists slam brakes to avoid a ticket.

The $158 fine also is not light on the pocketbook.

Police spokeswoman Andrea Davis offered a "simple solution" for those complaining about the fees.

"The bottom line is, don't run a red light and you won't receive a citation," she said.

The cameras are at 19 intersections; many intersections have cameras at multiple approaches.

City officials said that when selecting locations for cameras, they picked spots known for having red-light violations and crashes.

When a car rolls through a red light, a camera snaps a photograph of the car's exterior and the car's license plate. Violations are reviewed by the vendor, then by Tampa police. Officers confirm whether violations occurred; if so, a citation is issued.

When it comes to contesting tickets, violators can see photographs of their cars going through red lights and videos of the violation, police said.

Violators who don't pay their traffic tickets risk having their driver's license suspended.

More drivers ran stoplights at the northbound Lois Avenue/Hillsborough Avenue intersection than at any other red-light camera location in Tampa.

Police issued 6,336 citations at that approach in a year. That's 18 citations a day.

At the intersection — a central vein to enter Drew Park — police issued 3,261 citations to motorists turning left on red and 2,607 citations to people turning right on red.

John Webster, manager of Century Kia at the intersection's southwest corner, said earlier this year that he wasn't sure why the intersection draws so many red-light runners. He speculated that at night, when there's not much traffic, some drivers choose to roll right though.

A red-light camera on southbound 50th Street at Adamo Drive generated 5,650 citations in a year, second-highest of any Tampa location. A red-light camera on northbound 50th at Adamo generated 4,939 citations in a year, third-highest of any Tampa location.

The pace of ticketing for red-light running slowed after a furious beginning. During the first seven weeks that Tampa police used cameras to ticket red-light runners, 12,606 citations were issued.

Details on the number of crashes during the first year of ticketing was not immediately available, officers said.

But Capin thinks the cameras are primarily designed to keep the area safer — and that they do work.

Still, she said there's a perception that the cameras are simply being used to generate money.

Capin voted in opposition to red-light cameras because she wanted the money generated to be used specifically to improve safety at dangerous intersections.

"If it's for safety, then use it for safety," Capin said. "Use them to keep the intersections safer. Engineer them so they'll be safer." (813) 259-7691