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For eight years now, Philadelphia drivers have been living with the only red-light cameras in the state. These cameras – all 108 of them – are located in 24 different intersections throughout the city, and the $100 tickets they generate have raised more than $55 million in total revenue since the program began.
Starting in 2010, The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation began directing the profits from these cameras to help fund safety-related transportation projects throughout Pennsylvania. And under the original outline for that spending, known as the Automated Red Light Enforcement (ARLE) funding program, half of those profits were earmarked for projects in Philadelphia – since it was the only city that was actually generating the revenue.
But that’s about to change. Recent changes to the law that governs the cameras will mean that the Philadelphia Streets Department is no longer guaranteed 50% of that revenue. The changes also authorized other municipalities, defined as having a population of 20,000 or more with a police agency accredited by the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, to establish their own red light camera program – pending final approval over specific locations by PennDOT.
Previously, PennDOT selected the projects that ultimately got funded. Now, however, an eight-member committee – half appointed by the Mayor and the other half appointed by Penn-DOT, will make those decisions. So while it is now possible that the city could get none of the money, it’s also possible, theoretically at least, that it could get all of it.
Admittedly, the amount of money up for grabs is not substantial and is decreasing sharply.
The PPA’s 2011 fiscal year report shows that a total of 141,571 tickets and 8,257 warnings were issued. Total program revenue for the year was $13.7 million, and program expenses were $6 million. The following year, in 2012, total citations dropped to 131,880, and 26,249 warnings were issued – with total revenue dropping to $10 million and program expenses were $7 million. So – in 2011, $17 million in grant money was split between Philadelphia and the rest of the state; while in 2012, the total amount shared by the city and the state was $3 million.
“Over the years violation revenue has decreased because there are less violations occurring. This shows that the cameras are changing drivers’ behavior,” said Corinne O’Connor, deputy executive director at the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which administers the camera-ticketing program.
But every dollar is important, said Andrew Stober, chief of staff at the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities. “Particularly when we have money dedicated for safety… For something like this we can put $100,000 to good use,” he said. “And when we’re talking about millions of dollars that’s real money in terms of improving safety.”
This extra revenue has allowed Philadelphia to complete a number of low cost safety improvements, such as redoing line stripping at high crash, high traffic intersections, installing pedestrian count down signals at more than 100 intersections and battery back up systems for traffic lights. The money also frees up other resources, and the city is at times able to leverage the dollars.
And there’s also the question of basic fairness.
Of course anyone driving in the city—even visitors and commuters from other parts of the state—is subject to getting these tickets. And the PPA does not keep specific stats about the drivers who are receiving these tickets, so there is no way to know for sure where all the violators actually live. But given that the cameras are only located in Philadelphia, it seems likely that Philadelphia drivers receive these tickets more than others.
“It’s pretty easy to have a common sense approach here,” said Zack Stalberg, president of the watchdog group Committee of Seventy. “Whether the money is generated in Philadelphia or any other municipality, as much of it as possible should be coming back to the municipality where the violation took place. The cameras are here, the citizens who are being photographed are here so the money from the violations should stay here.”
The city holds a similar position.
“The city’s position has been and continues to be that the money generated from red light cameras should be invested in safety projects in the municipality where those fines were generated,” Stober said. “If other communities initiate red light cameras, then they absolutely should be getting those revenues.”
The Mayor’s representatives on the new selection committee are: Clarena Tolson, newly appointed revenue commissioner; David Perri, acting streets commissioner; Rina Cutler, deputy mayor of transportation and utilities; and Suzanne Biemiller, first deputy chief of staff.