Legislative panel gives nod to red light cameras

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HARRISBURG -- Will cameras that catch people running red lights finally get the green light from the Legislature?

A bill that would allow Pittsburgh and other larger cities to install red-light enforcement cameras won approval from the state Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday. It now moves on to the full Senate. But similar legislation pending in the House faces an uncertain future, according to its sponsor.

The Senate bill, sponsored by Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, authorizes Pittsburgh and third-class Pennsylvania cities with populations of 18,000 or more and full-time police forces to deploy the cameras. Other cities that would be authorized to have cameras include Erie, Altoona, New Castle, Johnstown and McKeesport.

It passed in a 21-5 vote, but only after state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, denounced it as "nothing more than a revenue-generating activity. It has nothing to do with public safety," he said.

Philadelphia is the only Pennsylvania city where the cameras are legal now. The Legislature authorized a pilot program starting in 2005 along Roosevelt Boulevard, a 12-lane highway with intersections that had been rated among the most dangerous in the U.S.

During the fiscal year ending March 31, the cameras generated 141,571 citations and 8,257 warnings at 19 intersections. That was up from 127,514 citations and 5,605 warnings the previous year, when 15 intersections had cameras. But the average number of citations per intersection declined from 23 per day during the 2009-10 fiscal year to 20 per day in 2010-11.

Still, the program generated $7.6 million in net income, which goes to a fund for pedestrian safety improvements throughout the state.

Once installed, the cameras within several months typically bring about a 50 to 60 percent reduction in red-light running, said Christopher Vogler, manager of red light photo enforcement for the Philadelphia Parking Authority.

The systems use sensors in the pavement to detect when a vehicle enters an intersection after the light has turned red. If it does, an overhead camera takes a photo of the license plate and generates a citation that is mailed to the car's owner.

More than 500 cities in 25 states use the cameras. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says its study showed a 24 percent decline in fatalities from red-light running in cities where the cameras are used, and reductions of 40 to 96 percent in violations. It has estimated that 150 lives were saved over five years in the 14 biggest cities that use them.

Critics say the cameras don't reduce crashes and are deployed primarily to raise revenue. In Los Angeles and Houston, the city councils have voted recently to remove the cameras.

The Senate legislation requires eligible cities to get approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation before deploying enforcement cameras at an intersection, and requires conspicuous signage on the approaches notifying drivers that the cameras are there.

Responding to Mr. Ferlo's criticism, Mr. Pileggi said "the intent of the bill is to save lives and enhance public safety." He noted that the legislation leaves it up to each eligible city to decide whether to deploy cameras.

Cities would split the fine revenue 50-50 with the state, with all of the money going to transportation safety improvements.

Among those voting in favor of the legislation on Monday were Sens. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, John Pippy, R-Moon, and Jay Costa Jr., D-Forest Hills. State Rep. Paul Costa, D-Wilkins, who is sponsoring similar legislation in the House, said he was hopeful but uncertain whether it would be brought up for a vote this year.

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/roundabout . Twitter: @pgtraffic.


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