When the Napa City Council extended its red-light camera contract for another year in June, the big unknown was whether the program would be able to pay for itself without right-turn cameras at the juncture of Highways 12 and 121.
These cameras had been the red-light camera program’s biggest moneymakers, but had generated the most controversy. When the council ended camera enforcement of right turns from southbound Highway 29 onto 12/121, officials voiced concern that financial solvency of the entire camera system was in jeopardy.
Advocates of red-light cameras need not have worried.
Even without right-turn camera enforcement at 12/121, the city continues to issue nearly the same number of citations citywide that it did in the spring, before the program was suspended for two months because of a court dispute.
The numbers suggest that the cameras, which cover four Napa intersections, continue to more than pay for themselves and are not costing the city money, according to a Register analysis.
In May, the cameras at the four intersections generated 416 citations, according to data posted on highwayrobbery.net that Napa Police Capt. Jeff Troendly said looked “spot on.”
In September, when ticketing resumed as before, the city issued 423 red-light tickets despite the elimination of right-turn citations at 12/121, according to highwayrobbery.net.
The number of citations dropped in October to 301, but that’s still above the city’s estimated break-even point for leasing the cameras from Redflex Traffic Systems Inc.
Before being disabled over the summer, the right-turn cameras at Highways 12 and 121 generated 90 percent of that intersection’s tickets and were the city’s biggest producer of citations, Troendly said.
According to the latest data, this intersection now trails the intersections of Soscol and Imola avenues and Jefferson and First streets. It now generates about as many tickets as the intersection of Trancas Street and Big Ranch Road, which in 2011 produced the fewest tickets.
So how, with the steep decline in citations at 12/121, have ticket levels citywide remained stable? Mostly because of a spike in citations at Soscol/ Imola.
In May, 133 tickets were generated at Soscol/ Imola. When the cameras were turned back on in August for a 30-day trial period, 256 warning notices were mailed to red-light runners. In September, when enforcement resumed, 274 tickets were sent out.
Councilman Mark van Gorder questioned whether, given this spike, the cameras are changing people’s driving behavior for the better, as police had predicted they would.
“The fact (the number of citations has) gone up is extremely concerning to me, enough so that I’m not sure we should continue the program,” van Gorder said. “It’s bothering me more and more.”
Troendly dismissed any notion that the Napa Police Department, which must approve every alleged violation provided by Redflex, is giving out more tickets at Soscol/ Imola to make up for the drop in tickets at 12/121.
“We use the same criteria (in reviewing possible violations) as we always have,” Troendly said.
The increase in citations at Soscol/Imola could be due to seasonal traffic changes at this location, Troendly speculated. “There could be higher volumes of traffic this time of year. ... School starts back up,” he said.
Fall classes at Napa Valley College, located south of Soscol/Imola, began in mid-August. “It might be this migration of new students who weren’t traveling this intersection before,” Troendly said.
Mayor Jill Techel, the only member of the City Council to vote against installing the cameras three years ago, called the numbers “concerning” and said she’d like to see how many motorists are being photographed by Redflex, not just those receiving citations from the police department.
“I’d be interested to see if there are, indeed, more people being caught or if there’s a different interpretation,” she said.
Regardless of why more motorists are being nabbed at Soscol/Imola, the fact remains that during September and October, the city appears to be covering the cost of its red-light camera program, and then some.
According to the city, Napa pays Redflex $5,670 each month for the cameras at Jefferson/First streets, the intersection with the lowest number of lanes policed by cameras. It pays $6,000 monthly for each of the other three intersections.
For each ticket, Napa receives just over $146 of the $476 total fine, according to the city. If all motorists paid the full fine amount, Napa could support its program as long as it issued roughly 162 tickets each month.
Troendly noted that some motorists may never pay their tickets, or do so over years, and some citations may be dismissed in court.
Thus, although 423 tickets were issued in September and 301 in October, it’s not yet known for certain whether the 162-ticket break-even point was reached.
“You may have one intersection that doesn’t generate enough (revenue), but you might have another that does,” Troendly said. “Ultimately, the point is to create safer intersections and change driving habits. ... We’re getting the response we want. ... Less violations should mean less potential for collisions.”
Given the new citation pattern, Troendly said the city may try to renegotiate a lower price with Redflex.
“They’ve been very good to work with,” he said. “They understand it has to be cost-effective for cities or they’ll be out of business.”
Troendly is currently reviewing the ticket numbers to determine whether the city is staying in the black.
Overall, the number of incidents caught by cameras has declined since they were installed in 2009 and 2010, Troendly said.
“The minute you take enforcement action, they do normally come down,” Troendly said. “They did all come down, then they start to level out.”
The police department and members of the City Council have long maintained the cameras are intended to make Napa roads safer, not generate revenue. Once the Redflex bill is paid, the city uses the additional money for traffic-safety programs, like placing electronic speed-limit signs near schools, Troendly said.
Though motorists may not like the high fines, which are set by the state, Councilman Peter Mott said he still thinks cameras are good for Napa. “I think they still provide a public safety benefit,” he said.
Van Gorder said if anyone who received a ticket can show him a video proving they were not hazardously running through an intersection and received a ticket for slowly rolling on a right turn, he will bring the matter before the council and vote to end the program.
Mott said he has yet to hear anyone who received a ticket argue they were not guilty of running the light.
“I believe in using technology to help reduce that risk,” Mott said. “If we save one kid, one injury, one person, it’s worth it.”