The four-year debate over Napa’s red-light traffic cameras continued Tuesday, with a divided Napa City Council approving a one-year contract extension with Redflex Traffic Systems, Inc. to operate the city's three remaining cameras.
The council’s 3-2 approval vote came with a caveat: a 10-day notice to cancel the contract at any time.
“We can do a one-year contract extension (with Redflex), while we evaluate the feasibility of bringing it in-house or putting it out to bid to see if there is a more cost-effective system,” said Napa Police Chief Richard Melton. "And if we find a better solution, we can give Redflex a 10-day notice and get out.”
Tuesday’s decision, approved with Mayor Jill Techel and Councilman Peter Mott dissenting, marked a shift in the council’s past support of the cameras. The traffic technology that catches drivers running red lights and fines offenders a state-mandated $490 has historically been unpopular with drivers, but supported by law enforcement. Other than Techel, the council has overwhelmingly backed the technology.
The Redflex contract was first approved by the city in 2008, and the cameras began operating in 2009. After a lawsuit challenging the legality of the cameras and traffic flow problems caused the city to turn the technology off for a time, the controversy eventually died down at City Hall.
But last year, Redflex, the Australia-based company that operates the camera programs in Napa and many other cities across the country, made headlines when it became entangled in a nasty bribery and corruption scandal involving the company’s top officials and city leaders in Chicago. The news gave anti-red light camera groups a forum to renew discussions over the usefulness of such technology. And as Napa’s contract expired, a whole new dialogue took shape, with council members calling for more information regarding the camera’s effectiveness.
Last year, the council extended the contract for 15 months to allow the Napa Police Department to further evaluate the red-light cameras. At the time, Police Capt. Jeff Troendly, who has overseen the red-light traffic program for four years, said that the technology has helped to change people’s behavior.
“When the cameras go dark, people know and things start changing drastically,” he said during the hearing. “I don’t recommend removing them for anything.”
Troendly pointed out that accidents at the four original intersections with cameras were down by 20 to 60 percent over the past five years. “This technology is making people safer,” he said.
The number of camera intersections shrank to three this summer when equipment was removed from Jefferson/First to make room for the planned conversion of First Street to two-way traffic in downtown.
On Tuesday, council members said they appreciated the department’s goal of making streets safer, but they were reluctant to approve a contract extension for a variety of reasons. Though Techel has never supported the cameras because of the exorbitant fees the state sets, she has typically been alone. But after hearing from the department that about 75 percent of the red-light tickets go to visitors who live outside Napa County, Mott – who previously voted for the cameras – changed his position.
“We are still a tourist-based city, and we are sending a $500 'thanks for visiting' notice to people who may have simply been lost in our town,” he said. “I think this is a great technology for many, many communities, but I’m just not convinced that it’s great for our city.”
Mott acknowledged that distracted driving continues to be a problem throughout the country, but said that “the young ladies doing whatever they’re doing and the people who are late” are the ones causing a majority of intersection accidents and contended that cameras may not change such behaviors.
“I see the people who have recognized the traffic cameras and have changed their behavior,” he said. “But I think so many of the visitors receiving tickets are people who are confused and don’t know where they are going. And we are penalizing them.”
Councilman Alfredo Pedroza disagreed. He said that the cameras were working to change the behaviors of drivers as a whole and supported continuing their operations. However, he wanted the technology used at fewer intersections and possibly with a new, cheaper contract.
“I see this as a technology that is making cities safer,” he said. “I know that $500 is a sizeable ticket for working-class families, but I do believe that if drivers are more mindful, they can prevent ever getting a ticket in the first place. I don’t like the fee. It’s too high. But we don’t set the fee and I don’t like unsafe intersections either.”
Pedroza joined Councilwoman Juliana Inman in calling for the city to put the contract out for bid, to see if Napa can get a better deal on the program. Napa’s extended contract will cost the city about $17,700 a month, which is an 8 percent reduction in price from the last contract.
Tickets typically generate about $35,520 in monthly revenue for the city, which is reinvested into local traffic safety programs, like free bicycle helmets and traffic radar guns. Troendly said that well over half of the $490 ticket is paid directly to the state. “The city sees about $150 for every ticket it sends out from the cameras,” he said.
Meanwhile, Councilman Scott Sedgley said he wants to the see the city handle the program internally and not use an outside contractor – a move that is expensive in capital startup costs.
“I know it’s a financial challenge, but it’s something I would favor,” he said. “If we control the program, we can move the cameras to different intersections, we can save on maintenance costs and we have more control.”
Melton and Troendly agreed that exploring other options was certainly a viable option for the city. The recommended approving the one-year extension, while the department studies Napa’s alternatives and estimated that more information would be available in about three months.