St. Pete Approves Red Light Cameras

04/01/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Today the St. Petersburg City Council voted to install cameras throughout the city to deter red light runners. They join Hillsborough County, Oldsmar, South Pasadena and Temple Terrace on the short list of local governments that have done so. But some people question whether cash flow, and not public safety, is their real motive.

St. Pete resident Robbie Marsade said he lost a brother in a crash involving a red light runner. He is all about having cameras mounted to stoplights to catch drivers who run red lights. Stop signs, even. People run red lights because they are speeding, Marsade said.

“It’s not rocket science. You don’t get a ticket for driving the speed limit. You get a ticket for speeding. There have been enough studies to show – and footage that shows people running through red lights. T-boning. People dying.”

Marsade said careless drivers make St. Petersburg a scary place to drive.

“You have people driving with their dogs in their laps. They can’t look out the other side because they’re also on their cell phone.”

The debate over red light cameras did not attract the Big Brother questions one might expect when City Hall talks surveillance. Instead, the big question was what the council’s true motive was: money or safety? Council member Herb Polson has a simple answer.

“It’s not a money issue. I am saying it publicly. I told the newspaper that yesterday. I told folks throughout the county that. To me, it’s not a money issue.”

To show this, Council member Karl Nurse moved to require the city to use the revenue it keeps from the $155 tickets for public-safety measures. That motion failed, but Nurse said he hopes the council will revisit the idea at a later date.

“People were not as upfront this week about the use of the money as they were when we started. … That’s the obvious place it ought to go to.”

Mayor Bill Foster said he didn’t really care about fines, and that the city should consider tougher punishment for drivers who continually disregard red lights.

“Quite frankly, I don’t care if there is no fine imposed for the blatant red light runner. Put ’em in jail…”

Not everyone on the council was convinced. Wengay Newton was the only council member not to support the ordinance. He said red light cameras were a piecemeal effort at best, and that if the city was doing this for safety, the revenue from red light tickets wouldn’t be slated for the general fund.

“I can’t see how it’s safety when … the gentleman brought up four-way stop signs. I see people plow through those. I see them drive 55 miles an hour through a 15 mph school zone. And kids are walking around. If it’s truly safety, then we’re going to jump to the whole issue. Not piecemeal, because if we don’t it’ll look like it’s purely revenue. …”

Another issue the council addressed was the fact that state law doesn’t allow cities to use red light cameras – yet. The Florida attorney general as well as an Aventura, Fla., judge have deemed them out of the scope of municipal authority. The city is waiting on several bills pending in the state Legislature that would change this before they start enforcing red light cameras. Newton questioned this as well.

“If it may not go into effect, then why do this? If we’re not pre-empting the state Legislature? For revenue.”

Some members of the public were also concerned about the ordinance. Among these was the question of whether there was adequate data to demonstrate need for the cameras or their effectiveness. Former council candidate Steve Corsetti said he wasn’t necessarily against or for it, but that he wasn’t sure about the constitutionality of the cameras.

Supporters likened tickets resulting from red light cameras to parking tickets. The cameras would be installed on traffic lights at intersections with high accident rates, but not until state lawmakers say it’s is OK for them to do so.

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