Eight years after they began appearing at local intersections, Napa’s red-light traffic cameras may finally be coming out.
The photo enforcement system installed and run by Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. is in limbo after the City Council decided not to renew the company’s contract, which expires at the end of February.
In a shift of stances on the driver-slowing but controversial red-light cameras, four council members voted Tuesday night against a new deal with Redflex, possibly putting an end to a system that has photographed drivers – and mailed them fines of nearly $500 each – since 2009.
Barring a last-minute about-face by the council or a successful counter-offer by Redflex, the decision appears to spell the removal of electronic eyes at the four Napa crossings covered by the equipment. Drivers are photographed and ticketed at Jefferson and First streets, the Highway 29 and 12/121 junction, Trancas Street and Big Ranch Road, and Soscol and Imola avenues.
Despite a push from Napa Police leaders to keep a program they credit with reducing injury wrecks caused by speeding, signal-beating motorists, a majority of council members decided the benefit was no longer worth the cost in money, or in the ill will of tourists and residents – especially low-income ones – slapped with hefty fees.
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“I don’t think the benefit outweighs the detriment,” said Peter Mott, a former red-light camera supporter who voted against continuing the program. “And I don’t think that’s the community we are.”
Napa had moved to a month-by-month contract with Redflex in 2015 and received proposals by other traffic enforcement companies, but city staff finally chose – with police department support – to recommend staying with Redflex to prevent any interruption of service.
Since the installation of cameras starting in 2009, the number of collisions at the four intersections has dropped 40 percent, compared to a 13 percent decrease for the city as a whole, said police Lt. Brian Campagna.
“My fear is that we’re going to regress to where we were in 2006 and that era,” Campagna told the council. “You may hear, again, that we have a rampant red-light-running problem and that our streets are not safe. Even with the traffic increasing, we are still holding (accidents) at bay and even reducing those collisions.”
“It’s not a popular program and I know that, but our concern is for people’s safety and security,” added police Chief Steve Potter. Even when a motorist escapes injury from another driver running a signal, he said, “just the damage can take a person out of work for a day or two, when many people live paycheck to paycheck.”
“You talk about people living paycheck to paycheck – I’m concerned about the penalty,” said Mayor Jill Techel, the only council member to oppose camera enforcement during the project’s approval in 2008. “If someone is living paycheck to paycheck and gets a bill in the mail for $500, that’s a huge penalty.”
Another sign of the red-light program’s wavering city support came from Juliana Inman, who, while still agreeing the cameras encourage safer driving, expressed her impatience with the opacity of Redflex’s fees.
The Australia-based Redflex had offered to charge the city $3,500 per month at each of the four surveyed crossings, or $14,000 total, down from $17,700 (at $4,425 per intersection) under the contract that ends Feb. 28. A new contract would have lasted at least three years, with Napa receiving three one-year extension options.
But Inman questioned why Napa was not given an even greater discount for equipment now several years old, and unfavorably compared Redflex’s offer to the extension terms it gave Elk Grove, a Sacramento suburb, in 2014: $2,000 monthly for each of seven intersections.
“Why is it $2,000 in Elk Grove and $3,500 in Napa? That question has not been answered,” she said, adding such enforcement “shouldn’t be a moneymaking operation” at the expense of those less able to pay the fines.
Earlier, police said that the monthly fees to Redflex will be paid using red light violation fines, which produced an average of $25,102 in monthly revenue during the 2015-16 fiscal year. Additional revenue has gone into traffic safety improvements such as lighted pedestrian crossing assist signals, radar speed feedback signs, and bicycle helmets for children.
Only Scott Sedgley was left to support continued camera enforcement, but his motion to renew Redflex’s contract drew no supporters. Casting the only dissenting vote against ending the program, he urged the city to keep a system he said protects not only safe drivers but those on bicycle and foot.
“Repeat offenders are next to zero; it’s a learned behavior,” said Sedgley, who earlier opposed the camera system before switching sides in later years. “That’s the benefit of the program, that people are aware of the cameras and the cost of tickets. The fine does seem high, but that’s the cost of breaking the law.
“Don’t run through yellow lights – it’s that simple. To change the speed of people going through intersections has made a huge difference. For people to say this makes them uncomfortable is not a reason to end the program.”
While only two residents spoke up at City Hall about the red-light program – both seeking to end it – Gentry described receiving a “deluge” of phone calls, emails, letters and even postcards urging her not to let the cameras and their resulting tickets continue.
“Not one single person wrote to me who said I should support it, and you’ve got to put weight in that,” she said after the vote. “You have to recognize this is something that matters to them.”
Despite a reduction in red-light-related collisions from 664 to 472 since camera patrolling began, opponents pointed out an even steeper decline started in 2006 – from 1,353 to 664 in the three years before Redflex’s arrival in Napa.
“I supported it initially because I saw it as a tool, but I don’t see enough effectiveness to say (the improvement) is just because of red-light cameras,” said Mott.
Furthermore, he suggested, some of the reduction in wrecks may be the result more of avoidance than good behavior. “About 60 percent of the tickets go to non-residents – that’s what I attribute the non-repeated offenses to,” quipped Mott. “They’re not coming back. They’re pissed off.”
Instead of patrolling busy roads with automated cameras, Napa resident Susan Rushing-Hart preferred to see her city invest in more in-person police staffing to keep drivers honest.
“I’d like to see police parked at the places with the worst traffic at the busiest times of day,” said Rushing-Hart, who said she was ticketed at the Napa-Vallejo Highway in June 2012 while slowing down to make a left turn onto Imola Avenue. “If you see a police car, you behave. I know I was driving safely, and to slam on the brakes there would have been unsafe.”
Gentry, too, questioned camera-only enforcement as constitutionally shaky, despite conceding some safety benefits from photo enforcement – though not so much as to dramatically reduce serious injuries by itself.
Injuries tracked on Napa roads “could just be a bump on the head; it’s not necessarily death or dismemberment or the loss of a limb,” she said afterward. “It doesn’t necessarily mean a life-changing injury. When I weighed that against the idea that rights might be violated, I felt I needed to stick with my judgment of not supporting the red-light cameras.”
Police recommended a new Redflex contract despite the company’s ensnarement in bribery scandals in Chicago and Columbus, Ohio. “We have not experienced the issues that other communities have had,” Potter said last week.
The corruption probes have resulted in prison sentences for a former Redflex chief executive, a former Chicago assistant transportation commissioner and a Columbus lobbyist. according to media reports. On Dec. 27, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that Redflex would repay Columbus $100,000 and Chicago a sum to be decided later, but would not be prosecuted as a company. (James Harden, a Redflex client services manager, acknowledged the agreement to the council.)