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Politics & Government

Red Light Cameras Have Their Day in Council

Flickr user compujeramey

State Rep. Paul Costa grew up where the Pittsburgh neighborhoods of Point Breeze and Squirrel Hill come together, and he knows to be careful when passing through the intersection of Forbes and Dallas avenues on the way to visit his mother.

“They run red lights there often,” Costa said.  “You wait for that light to turn green for a couple of seconds before you decided to proceed.”

That intersection and several others are on the list of intersections in Pittsburgh that could soon host red light cameras if legislation under consideration in City Council passes.

In 2012 the state Legislature passed a law allowing the city to mount the cameras, and now legislation taking advantage of that option is being considered. 

Before the new state law was enacted, Philadelphia was the only city in the state allowed to operate such cameras.

At a post agenda meeting Wednesday, former Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Police President Dan O’Hara told council members he is not ready to rush into the implementation of the cameras.

“We have questions whenever you remove a police officer out of the equation and allow an automated system to take over," O’Hara said. "It’s not that we are opposed to the safety issues. I think that there certainly are positives from a safety stand point.”

If the city were to pass enabling legislation, it would contract with a private firm to mount and operate the cameras. All of the money that comes from the $100 dollar tickets would be sent to an eight-member board for distribution to traffic safety projects. Half of those board members would be appointed by the city and half would be appointed by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. 

A similar system is in use in Philadelphia, and about half of the funds collected stay in the city while the rest is distributed throughout the state.

When Philadelphia first began to use the red light cameras 10 years ago they were limited to three intersections on Roosevelt Boulevard.

“At that time Roosevelt Boulevard was listed as one of the top 10 most dangerous roads in the United States," Costa said. "Since we implemented the red light camera program in the Philadelphia area, Roosevelt Boulevard is off the list.”

Costa said there were 17 fatal accidents on Roosevelt Boulevard the year before the cameras were installed and just one the year after.

Richard Retting, vice president of Sam Schwartz Engineering, appeared before council in support of the use of cameras. He said there is a large body of evidence that shows the cameras lower the number of accidents. He brushed aside reports that show it increases rear end accidents by saying the increases were either very small or were associated with other factors such as increased traffic volume.

And it does not end there, according to Retting.

“The data are crystal clear, we have seen almost identical reductions in violations a few blocks away from the red light cameras to intersections without red light cameras," he said. "There is what call a spillover effect.” 

PennDOT requires that signs be posted where the cameras are in use, but Retting said it seems drivers are not experts on which intersections host cameras but seem to know which neighborhoods have them.

City Councilman Daniel Lavelle said he would love to make sure the cameras pick up bicyclists and bus drivers. He thinks buses are often the cause of congestion at intersection, especially downtown.

There is no date yet set for a vote on the legislation.