Public backlash could end Dallas red-light cameras
Citizens have forced a public vote over the lucrative cameras
By Jon Nielsen
Citizens in three Texas cities who are angry about the devices have forced a public vote to ban the cameras.
Last year, College Station voters narrowly passed a proposition that bans the cameras there. In November, voters in Houston and Baytown, a Houston suburb, will decide whether to keep red-light cameras in their cities.
The November outcome could set a precedent for similar revolts in North Texas municipalities.
"There's concern on the part of everybody whether or not that's a trend among cities," said Plano assistant city manager Bruce Glasscock. "I'm monitoring it very closely and talking to the people in Houston. But it's one of those things we just have to wait and see what the voters decide in Houston."
Paul Kubosh, one of the organizers of the Houston petition that triggered November's election, said the result in Houston could be a milestone in toppling the red-light cameras in North Texas.
"If the cameras fall here, it can be a domino effect," Kubosh said. "It wouldn't surprise me if somebody up in Dallas just got fed up. That's all it would take."
In Dallas, a petition must have the signatures of at least 10 percent of the city's qualified voters.
The cameras capture images, and sometimes video, of drivers running red lights. The images are vetted by the camera company and, ultimately, by police. Most Texas cities charge civil fines of between $75 and $100 per violation.
The cameras' usefulness has been debated since they were introduced in Texas cities in 2003.
Proponents say that the cameras keep drivers from speeding through red lights, keeping the streets safer. Opponents say that the device, touted as a safety measure, is nothing more than a revenue-generating machine for cities. In Duncanville, City Manager Kent Cage said he's watching the elections.
"I'm not worrying about it too much because I can't do anything about it," Cagle said. "But if that's what voters want and that's what happens, then so be it. You've got to respect the will of the voters."
Red-light camera proponents are challenging the Houston and Baytown elections in court. Their attorneys say that the petitions challenging the cameras should have been initiated when the cities first adopted the measures several years ago. The cities' charters state that efforts to overturn city ordinances must be filed within 20 and 30 days of a law taking effect.
It's no secret that cities have reaped financial benefits from the citations.
Dallas collected $7.1 million in fines in fiscal year 2009. Arlington collected $5 million, Plano $2.4 million and Duncanville nearly $2 million.
State law limits how cities can spend red-light revenues. The law requires cities to turn over half of profits to fund regional trauma centers. Cities generally spend the rest of the money on traffic safety, improving traffic intersections or enhancing DWI enforcement that would ordinarily require general revenue funds.
Scrapping the cameras could mean the loss of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, for already cash-strapped cities.
Lloyd Ward, a Dallas attorney who once challenged the legitimacy of red-light cameras in Dallas civil court, said the elections raise an interesting question.
"Would you rather have red-light cameras or potholes in the street?" he asks.
He'd choose potholes.
"Right now it's set up to be a moneymaker for the city," he said. "It's much more profitable to institute that system than put more police on the street."
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