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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Red Light Camera sticker shock

Can this deal work?
By Will Collette

On Wednesday, at 6 PM, the Town Council will hold a special meeting/workshop to discuss the two bids the town received to install a red light enforcement camera system at the town’s four stop lights along Route 1.

The good news is the two bidders understand that Charlestown wants a “turn-key” operation that will not cost Charlestown taxpayers a nickel for the system, so their proposals include a “cost neutrality guarantee.” For the term of the contract, Redflex and Sensys are prepared to accept whatever revenue the ticket fines generate.

But the actual cost of the system will make you gasp, and also make you wonder how it will be possible for this system to pay for itself.

First, a disclaimer. I am a huge fan of red-light cameras, although I have no financial stake in them. Having lived and worked in the Washington DC metro area for 25 years, I am convinced these cameras probably saved Cathy and me from death or serious injury. Red-light running is a regional sport in DC, sort of like the way Rhode Island drivers love to tailgate in the high-speed lane on the highway.

I do believe red-light cameras have a significant deterrent effect on red-light running and save lives.

I had also hoped they could generate some cash for the town, too, but after looking at the bids, that seems very unlikely unless our lives on Charlestown’s main artery changes in a pretty drastic way.

You can read the town’s bid specs and the two proposals by clicking here

While both bidders offer different pricing options and packages, the proposals are very similar in structure.

We will need 16 camera systems – one system to cover each of the four compass points at the four town stop lights. Each system will cost just under $5000 a month, give or take, depending on the options the town might select.

So 16 camera systems x $5000 x 12 months = $960,000.

Let’s say the tickets are $75 each and around 80% of the tickets get paid. To break even, the vendors’s systems would have to issue roughly 15,000 red-lighting running notices of violation.

15,000 tickets. 1250 a month.

In all of 2011, the Charlestown Police Department issued 756 citations for all offenses, not just red-light running. That’s an average of 63 citations per month. So far in 2012, we’re running at an average of 76 tickets a month.

But 1250! An average of 42 per day. More or less. That's a very big change in the intensity of current traffic enforcement which averages between two and three tickets a day.

I wish my Progressive Charlestown colleague Tom Ferrio wasn’t on vacation – he’s our team’s math guy – but even with my suspect math, the nature of driving down Route 1 would need to change very drastically for the vendors to make money, never mind generate any revenue for Charlestown.

I really don’t have a problem with the vendors getting hosed, but I doubt if they’re totally stupid. Both of them are leading national vendors for these systems and know how to turn a profit from their products.

One of the first things these vendors would do first is conduct a study and analysis of our intersections to measure traffic flow and determine what would be needed to properly cover those locations. Obviously, the corporate bean-counters will run the numbers to make sure they work for their interests as well as ours.

At our end, if we have a vendor willing to give us a million-dollar traffic safety system that will deter dangerous conduct for free and at no risk, hey, what’s not to like?

"Why'd y'all run that there stop light?"
But 1250 tickets a month might be the answer to that question. If the systems are set up to nail that volume of Route 1 users, that could be as bad for Charlestown’s reputation - as some stereotypical Southern speed trap town.

Perhaps all will become clear on Wednesday night. I know our soon-to-be-retired Chief Jack Shippee put a lot of work into moving this concept along. I also remember how he was almost embarrassed when he told the Council about the numbers in the two bids.

Clearly, the point of the red-light cameras is to deter red-light running by issuing more citations than our human police officers can. After all, the camera system is a machine, a traffic robo-cop  – you can’t reason with it, and it’s out there 24/7, guarding each intersection, which is something that human police officers can’t do.

So let’s keep an open mind and stay focused on the value of protecting lives. But I hope to hell the reality doesn’t match the math.