Council gives green light to cameras at red lights

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Sometime next year, Pittsburgh will be the next city to deploy red-light enforcement cameras, as part of a test run that Bill Peduto and other supporters say will increase road safety.

The mayor-elect was struck by an SUV running a red light Downtown 15 years ago, breaking some of his ribs, and just last week his incoming operations officer, Guy Costa, also was hit by a vehicle near the City-County Building. Next year, his administration will target up to 20 intersections judged to be the most dangerous in the city and install cameras there to catch lawbreakers.

"It's going to improve the areas of the city where it's dangerous for pedestrians to cross the street, or motorists to drive," Mr. Peduto said in support of the measure Tuesday.

He and other council members supported the red-light cameras in a 7-2 vote with Councilwomen Theresa Kail-Smith and Natalia Rudiak opposed.

Philadelphia has had the cameras since 2005, and last year the Legislature authorized them in Pittsburgh. Under the new measure, which Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is expected to sign, motorists caught running red lights would face $100 civil penalties that would not affect their auto insurance rates. Fines would not begin until 60 days after the first cameras are installed, and placement of the cameras and timing of the lights would be under state Department of Transportation oversight. Intersections with cameras will be marked with signs.

Around the country, 500 cities have such systems and typically the cameras are connected to traffic signals and pavement sensors that record when drivers enter intersections while signals are red. Those entering during green or yellow lights -- while waiting against traffic to go left, for instance -- would not be cited.

Violators would be identified by their license plate numbers, just as they are at E-ZPass lanes on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Thirty days after the disposition of traffic offenses, the images will be destroyed.

Just like the state legislation, the city's ordinance will have to be reauthorized in mid-2017. If the system does not work, it can be scrapped, Mr. Peduto and other council supporters said.

"We're only going to be going after the bad guys, [motorists] who are knowingly blowing through these traffic signals," he said.

"It's worth the test. One of the things government doesn't do is it doesn't take risks. ... In the new administration we're going to test out a lot of things and see if they work or they don't work. We're not going to be afraid of that failure."

"We do not have enough police officers to be at these intersections," said council President Darlene Harris, another supporter, "and if these [cameras] save a life, we're all for them."

Mr. Peduto said Mr. Costa, the city's former public works director, visited a hospital after being struck by a vehicle on Ross Street last week but was uninjured.

Next year, the Peduto administration will seek bids from the private companies that supply and maintain the cameras, which should push back installation until the summer. The city would then collect ticket revenue, pay the camera company operating and maintenance costs, then forward the rest to PennDOT.

PennDOT will disburse ticket money to municipalities statewide through a competitive grant process. Pittsburgh will get to tip the scale a bit by naming members to the commission making the grants, but much of the money will go elsewhere: traffic improvement grants awarded this spring from Philadelphia traffic cameras went to 42 other municipalities as well.

That was a main reason Ms. Rudiak voted against the measure, noting well-off suburbs of Pittsburgh will benefit from the city's cameras. "Much of the money actually goes to municipalities that are not authorized to have the cameras," she said.

Fellow opponent Ms. Smith said installing the cameras could cause motorists to avoid visiting the city for fear of being ticketed and increase rear-end collisions at intersections. A study sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration showed that rear-end fender-benders increased by 15 percent in seven cities with the cameras, though more serious right-angle, or T-bone, crashes decreased by 25 percent.

Tim McNulty: or 412-263-1581. First Published December 10, 2013 1:05 PM

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