City officials said the cameras act as a deterrent, preventing dangerous T-bone type crashes. The Rome City Commission addressed safety for walkers at the same time, by directing the $70 fines to a separate fund dedicated to sidewalks, trails and other pedestrian improvements.
Sidewalk spending increased nearly tenfold under the program, which included the November 2008 addition of cameras at the intersection of Martha Berry Highway and Veterans Memorial Highway.
The city spent $362,280 building and restoring sidewalks between 2005 and the present, compared with a total of $38,051 during the previous five years.
But future sidewalk plans have fallen victim to the sharp decrease in citations — and revenue — that followed a 2008 state law extending the yellow light by one second at camera-monitored intersections.
“The budget depended heavily, exclusively, on the revenue from the cameras,” Public Services Director Kirk Milam said. “So the work has been scaled back to just essential repairs or projects funded through grants or other sources.”
The fallout from the law was statewide, and many jurisdictions have since scrapped their red-light cameras.
Dalton Mayor David Pennington said it ended up costing more to run the program than the city was taking in, and the police department could not afford to subsidize the cameras.
“I personally objected to them,” Pennington said. “At one intersection, 55 percent of the tickets were for making a rolling right turn on red. That looked to me like a revenue-grab.”
Rome commissioners, however, asked staffers to try to renegotiate their contract with Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., which was in danger of losing all its business in Georgia.
The result was a May 1 switch from a mounting deficit of more than $10,000 a month to an essentially “cost-neutral” contract officials say would sap no more than $8,000 a year from city coffers.
Rome Mayor Wright Bagby Jr. said he’s convinced having the cameras increases driver awareness and safety throughout the city. “Everything we do in government is not a money-maker, but many things, like fire protection, are important to do,” Bagby said. “I believe the program is a significant safety factor in Rome.”
City Manager John Bennett said revenue has never been the motivation behind the cameras. “They’ve been effective,” he said. “It’s like the speed monitor we put up that shows how fast you’re going. About 90 percent of the time, people slow down when they see them.”
He said the renegotiated contract was needed to make the program cost-effective for the city.
“We do not anticipate this costing us much of anything now,” he said.
Q&A ABOUT RED-LIGHT CAMERAS
Where are cameras operating?
The tags of vehicles headed north or south on Turner McCall Boulevard at Hicks Drive are automatically photographed if they are in the intersection when the light is red.
Ditto for vehicles going south on Martha Berry Highway or west on Veterans Memorial Highway at the intersection of those two roads.
Cameras monitoring northbound traffic on Martha Berry and eastbound traffic on Veterans were disabled under the revised Redflex contract.
Why was the Redflex contract revised?
Violations — and revenue — were cut in half when a June 2008 change in state law added one second to the length of yellow lights at monitored intersections.
In April 2008, Rome paid Redflex $7,900 to lease two cameras and took in $17,290 in fines.
“Projections were that we’d get double that at Martha Berry and be able to do more sidewalks and trails,” Finance Director Sheree Shore said. “But that didn’t happen.”
In April 2009, the city owed $22,700 for six cameras that generated a total of $11,408.
How does the new contract resolve the deficit?
Redflex dropped its fee to $1,800 a month per approach — $7,200 for four cameras. The contract also states the lease is revenue-neutral.
“If our revenues do not meet the cost of the contract, the charges just roll over to the next month,” Milam said.
The contract is for a year, renewable for up to nine more years. Redflex will absorb any outstanding balance at the end of the contract period.
What happens if my vehicle is photographed?
The photographs are sent to the Rome Police Department, where an officer retrieves the vehicle and owner information and mails a $70 citation. State law assigns responsibility to the owner, but no points are assessed against his or her license.
Won’t the city end up with about $4,800 a month extra?
No. Shore said the basic cost of processing the citations is about $4,200 a month and that amount goes to the city before Redflex gets its fee.
But that means the cameras have to generate $11,400 a month to break even. And the city stopped paying its bill in January, until the contract was renegotiated, so there is still $90,800 outstanding. Redflex is granting a $36,300 credit, at $1,000 a month for 35 months and $1,300 in the 36th month, but any revenue above the break-even point will go to pay off the balance.
What else is in the contract?
The document lets Rome reactivate the two idled cameras and add cameras at as many as eight more intersections, but Milam said those options aren’t currently in play.
“We’re not planning more cameras,” he said. “It’s just standard language so you don’t have to renegotiate terms if you decide to put them in later.”
Is there documentation cameras improve safety?
Milam said a 2007 study at the Turner McCall intersection showed a drop in the number of serious T-bone type crashes “and I’m optimistic we’ll show the same thing at Martha Berry and the bypass.”
Another new state law requires annual reports to the state DOT in order to get permits for the cameras. Milam said he is in the process of compiling the data, including accident statistics, and expects to have it ready by October.
If safety is the goal, why not just dump the cameras and lengthen the yellow lights?
Milam said signal timing ensures a smooth flow of traffic — and adding one second to yellow lights causes a tiny slowdown that builds throughout the day. He pointed out that the timing requirement was set by the Georgia General Assembly, not calculated by traffic engineers.
What if the legislature puts more restrictions on the cameras?
The new contract with Redflex has an immediate opt-out clause if a change in state law compromises the city’s ability to use the cameras.
CITY SIDEWALK SPENDING
The main focus of the sidewalk program was to increase connectivity around city schools, Public Works Director Jamie McCord said.
Among the locations where new walkways were installed: Brownfox Drive and Coosawattee Avenue near West End Elementary; Sycamore Street at Elm Street Elementary; and Brookwood Avenue and Delvue Place serving South Central Elementary.
An extension along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard also connects neighborhoods with Etowah Park.
Repairs and rehabilitation of existing sidewalks, along with downtown Streetscape improvements and the addition of raised panels to alert blind pedestrians were also part of the program.
Avenue A, Fourth Avenue, Hardy Avenue, the Between the Rivers Historic District and South Rome were among the beneficiaries.
“Not only did it give us connectivity, it stimulated the economy,” McCord said. “We were keeping local contractors working.”
Since 2005, McCord said, the program has paid for 16,812 linear feet of new sidewalk; repairs and restoration of 13,694 linear feet and 133 curb ramps.