Cities put brakes on red-light cameras

LAWRENCEVILLE - Five years ago, cameras became a popular form of traffic enforcement in Gwinnett. Six governments adopted the strategy to stop red-light runners at more than a dozen intersections throughout the county.

But by this summer, only one government might still have cameras on.

Some say dwindling revenues are causing the cameras to come down; others say people have learned their lesson.

But nearly all agree a new state law that added an extra second to the yellow light phase of a monitored intersection has affected the systems' viability.

"They did a good job," Norcross Police Chief Dallas Stidd said of the cameras, which were turned off in Norcross earlier this month. "The second added to the time seems to have taken care of the problem."

Stidd said accidents at the city's two camera-enforced intersections - Beaver Ruin Road at Buford Highway and Peachtree Industrial Boulevard at Medlock Bridge Road - declined from 80 in 2007 to 54 in 2008.

In addition to Norcross, Suwanee officials removed the cameras, while Snellville and Lilburn have suspended their programs for study. A Duluth official said the city won't renew its lease when it expires in May.

Only Gwinnett County officials say they are sticking with the red-light program.

"It's helping us do our job in enforcing the law," Gwinnett Police spokesman Cpl. David Schiralli said. "It's shown that it's helping reduce accidents in the county. I believe that's more important than the revenues."

Schiralli did not have statistics after January, when the extra time was added to yellow lights, but the amount of tickets at the intersection of Jimmy Carter Boulevard and Singleton Road went down from 322 in May of 2008 to 180 in December.

The county has moved its cameras when citations have dwindled at certain intersections, moving on to other locations where traffic accidents are common.

The Jimmy Carter intersection outside Norcross is the only location where cameras have remained for five years. Now, the program also includes cameras at Mall of Georgia Boulevard and Buford Drive outside Buford and at Beaver Ruin Road at Steve Reynolds Boulevard outside Duluth.

According to a cost analysis, the program cost the police department about $214,000 in 2008, not including the cost of court proceedings, and it brought in about $279,734 in penalties.

"We didn't implement this program for revenue. We implemented it for safety," Schiralli said.

That sentiment was echoed across the county when the program began, but economic factors have forced officials to look closer at the costs.

Snellville Police Chief Roy Whitehead said his city turned off the cameras because of the country's economic woes, which have forced officials to look for $1 million in the city's budget.

The accident rates have definitely improved, he said, adding that only two people were transported to the hospital because of injuries last year, but he said the drop in revenues makes the cameras' use hard to justify spending $40,000 a month on the program.

From a high of 3,000 violations a month in its infancy, the cameras recently produced only 356 violations at three intersections - U.S. Highway 78 at Ga. Highway 124, Ga. 124 at Ronald Reagan Parkway and U.S. 78 at Ga. Highway 84.

"When you have to cut something from the budget, what do you cut?" he said, adding that three police officer positions have already been frozen. "To maintain (the camera program), we'd have to lay more people off."

The Snellville City Council voted Monday to stop citations but keep the cameras functioning for several months to study the impact of the yellow-light change, the number of violations and if accidents increase.

"All those things will be factored into that economic decision," Whitehead said.

Last week, Lilburn officials also suspended citations for 90 days to study the camera enforcement at three intersections along U.S. Highway 29 - at Rockbridge, Indian Trail-Lilburn and Beaver Ruin roads.

There, Chief John Davidson said only 313 citations were issued in the entire month of January, compared to a high of 1,860 in April of 2008.

"The program has always been about safety, and it worked," Davidson said. "But you have to do a cost-benefit analysis on any government program."

The numbers don't add up in Duluth, City Administrator Phil McLemore said.

Duluth was the first government to turn the cameras on in 2004, at the intersection of Pleasant Hill Road at Peachtree Industrial Boulevard. The program was expanded to Pleasant Hill at North Berkeley Lake Road and Sugarloaf Parkway at Buford Highway, but McLemore said a contract with LaserCraft for the program will not be renewed in May.

He said officials thought they could end up in the positive by a tune of $200,000 a year after a cost analysis in December, but because of the sharp drop in citations in January, the city may not be able to break even.

"When we are faced with the possibility of layoffs and other things to keep in our budget, we can't afford to have something that doesn't pay for itself," he said. "We've cut everything we can. We can't afford to keep it."