Red light cameras were on everyone’s mind at the Tuesday, January 19 Gulfport City Council meeting, but they won’t be for long; council has chosen not to continue with them.
Gulfport’s contract with American Traffic Solutions (ATS), the third-party company that supplies cities with traffic cameras and services, is set to expire in March and council voted unanimously not to renew the contract. Red light cameras located at Gulfport Blvd. S and 58th Street, Gulfport Blvd. S. and 49th Street, as well as 49th Street and 15th Avenue S. will be discontinued.
“Bottom line for me…. People don’t like it,” Mayor Sam Henderson said. “I have not had one call about red light cameras saying, ‘This is great.’ That seals the deal for me right there.”
Several other factors were in play in council’s decision not to renew, and many of council’s complaints were about ATS themselves, citing miscommunication and faulty equipment.
“I recommend that we do not support renewing any long-term contract for any automated ticketing systems until the kinks, lawsuits, state statues and faulty pucks are worked out,” Councilman Dan Liedtke said.
ATS representative David Mast was at the podium to field questions from council, but was left speechless on many points and unable to give any answers.
“You have sensors in the road – WBD pucks; they detect the vehicle. That is the technology that triggers the camera. You had a puck that was capturing violations, but […] you then had a road project at that location in that time frame and milled the road up and the puck was taken with the asphalt. We put new pucks in … and when we put the new pucks in, we realized [the old puck] was a faulty puck,” Mast said. “It wasn’t operating optimally and that’s why we saw improvements in the number of captures. It was absolutely functioning intermittently.”
Mast explained that the intermittent function is why they could not tell that it was not working properly solely by the information shown on the reports. Once the new, working puck was installed, the frequency of violations went up in reports.
The city was not informed of this, therefore adding more tension between Gulfport and ATS.
“I apologize on the behalf of ATS for the level of service that you received from us,” Mast said.
ATS was also accused of changing software without notifying the city, which may have caused violation captures to spike.
“We had an increase of 75 percent for a period in July 2015 compered to the previous year. It was more than a faulty puck,” Liedtke said. “You guys implemented a firmware and a software upgrade and I think that was definitely part of the issue.”
Mast denied that the software update increased violation captures.
“Upon subsequent investigation internally, neither the firmware or the rocker arm upgrade would have created an increased capture in violations,” Mast said. “It would have been the puck in the ground capturing and sending the signal to the camera.”
Liedtke asked Mast if ATS had replaced any pucks in the city of South Pasadena. When Mast had no answer, Liedtke informed him that they had not, but that South Pasadena also received a firmware and software upgrade – and a subsequent 35 percent increase in violations captured.
“They too were not made aware of any firmware or software upgrades to their system,” Liedtke said. “The biggest issue I have is we have absolutely no way of determining if this program is effective or not. We don’t know if it is changing driver’s behaviors because you guys are changing the software on us and not telling us.”
Gulfport Police Chief Rob Vincent provided crash data compiled from the red light cameras and data from years prior to red light cameras.
“In 2010, crashes were at 163; 2009 was 150; 2008 was 159; 2007 was 176; 2006 was 147; 2005 was 188,” Vincent said. “Last year on sideswipe crashes – the year before the cameras went into effect – there were seven of them. In the state fiscal year 2014, there were five.”
Matt Florell, the founder of www.stpetecameras.org, has been researching red light cameras for over five years and was featured in a 2010 Tampa Bay Times article. He provided more data during public comment.
“In 2014, Gulfport reported to the state that crashes had decreased 26 percent in those intersections overall, but more serious side-impact crashes have actually increased 25 percent,” said Florell. “These are very different numbers than what we see presented today.”
Vincent says that once the cameras cease operation, it will be up to the police to increase traffic patrol and perform proactive red light enforcement – something the police department hasn’t had to do in five years.
“The positive is that having a police officer at an intersection will provide discretion and will show commitment and understanding to drivers,” Vincent said. “But one officer will not come close to what a camera can do. We would need 15 officers to match that.”
Records provided by the city show that Gulfport grossed $616,236 from the red light camera program. After paying ATS $177,000 and $277,303 to the state of Florida in fees, Gulfport netted $161,933 in revenue since the cameras were installed in 2010.
While records show fluctuation in total yearly crashes in Gulfport, they do refelect an overall decrease since 2010. Pinellas County, however, saw a 110 percent increase in crashes, with the state reporting a 13 percent increase.
Red light cameras have been controversial. Locally, the city of St. Petersburg voted to end their usage of red light cameras in late 2014 after multiple concerns, including equipment configuration issues. The city of St. Petersburg was also under contract with ATS.
City Manager Jim O’Reilly says the cameras in Gulfport will be operational up to March, but will be discontinued thereafter. As of now, there are no plans to persue any other company to provide red light cameras, but it is “always an option,” said O’Reilly.
“Theoretically, if council were to want to look into another company, we could enter talks with one, including ATS again,” O’Reilly said.