Pittsburgh council on board with red-light cameras, final vote to come
By Bob Bauder
Published: Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013, 11:45 a.m.
Pittsburgh drivers who get tickets for zipping through red lights may have a way to weasel out, observers said in response to City Council's preliminary vote on Wednesday to install cameras at busy intersections.
The electronic setup might not bring the city much money, either, they said.
“So they have a picture of my car going through a red light,” attorney Pat Thomassey said. “The burden is always on the commonwealth to prove somebody guilty. Unless they can prove I was driving it, how are they going to give me a ticket? These citations tie up the courts, and almost everybody is found not guilty.”
Council is expected to take a final vote next week on legislation that would permit about 20 cameras at intersections throughout the city. Under state law, the measure would die on July 15, 2017, unless the Legislature and council reauthorize it.
Pittsburgh police couldn't provide information about which intersections in the city are most dangerous.
Council members cited traffic safety, ticket revenue and the “sunset” provision allowing for the measure to end as reasons for considering the program.
“What raised my comfort level enough to vote on it is there is a sunset provision,” Councilman Bruce Kraus said, adding that the city can use new revenue for traffic safety enhancements. “We can try it for two years. If it doesn't work, council doesn't have to renew it.”
Critics cite an increase in rear-end accidents where cameras exist, privacy concerns and the legal conundrum Thomassey cited.
“There are significant concerns that I have, so I will not be voting for it,” Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith said.
The city would have to compete with other municipalities for grants and is not guaranteed any cash the tickets generate, according to the state Department of Transportation.
Under PennDOT's Automated Red-Light Enforcement program, motorists are penalized a flat fine of $100. Unlike other moving violations, the penalty does not include traffic points, which can lead to a suspended license if a driver accumulates six or more.
Currently, a motorist who gets a ticket for running a red light can be issued a fine and costs as high as $120, plus three points, according to state police.
Red-light cameras in Philadelphia, the only place in the state where they are in use, have generated about $73.3 million since their inception in 2005, according to reports posted online by the Philadelphia Parking Authority. About $39.8 million went to pay Philadelphia's expenses, including camera rental.
Philadelphia is paying $5.9 million for rental this year of 111 cameras at 24 intersections, said Andrew Dankanich, deputy manager of the authority's Red-light Camera Department.
The state so far has awarded $24.5 million in traffic safety enhancement grants, $11.4 million of which went to Philadelphia, according to PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt.
The law previously permitted Philadelphia to receive about 50 percent of ticket revenue, but the rules changed in 2012, requiring municipalities, including Philadelphia, to compete for PennDOT grants that come from the revenue. A committee will determine which communities gets grants.
Supporters say cameras drastically reduce traffic fatalities at dangerous intersections. Philadelphia's Roosevelt Boulevard, the city's most dangerous highway, had 17 fatalities before cameras were installed, state Rep. Paul Costa, D-Wilkins, said. One year later, only one person died on the highway, he said.
“There's no question that the red-light cameras save lives,” Costa said.
Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.
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