AD13-001

STAFF REPORT

Operations Committee, August 2, 2012

 

SafeLight Cary Program (AD13-001)

Consideration of a recommendation to discontinue SafeLight Cary program

Speaker:  Mr. Ben Shivar

 

From:  Benjamin T. Shivar, Town Manager
Prepared by:  Benjamin T. Shivar, Town Manager
Approved by:  Benjamin T. Shivar, Town Manager

Approved by:  Michael J. Bajorek, Assistant Town Manager

 

Executive Summary:  In 2004 the Town implemented the SafeLight Cary program.  For a variety of reasons, including questions or concerns about the enabling legislation for the program, recent engineering modifications at intersections to improve safety, significant increases in staff time to address system problems and associated citizen complaints and recent concerns over improper ticketing of legal left turns,  staff recommends the program be discontinued.

 

Background:  In 2001, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted Session Law 2001-286 allowing municipalities in Wake County to use automated cameras as a means to identify and issue citations to motorists who run red lights.  The legislation has since been amended by Session Laws 2003-380, 2004-141 and 2010-132. Based on this legal authority, the Town decided to pursue a red light camera program to achieve three goals:  1) reduce the number of crashes at designated intersections; 2) keep traffic flowing efficiently and effectively by eliminating instances of blocked intersections; 3) effectively and efficiently use limited resources by expanding the Police Department’s ability to enforce all traffic laws.

 

In September 2002, staff issued a request for proposals from qualified companies to install, operate and maintain the necessary equipment and provide revenue collection, customer service and management of an automated red light enforcement program.  Redflex was awarded the contract in December 2002 and installed the system which became operational in 2004.

 

The Town currently maintains 170 signalized intersections, only 15 of which are part of the SafeLight Cary program. There are 17 red light camera monitoring systems at these 15 intersections.  Citations for violations carry a $50 fine with an additional penalty if the fine is not paid within the specified period.  No driver license or insurance points are assessed.

 

The Town receives no revenue from the program. What the law defines as “clear proceeds” must go to public schools in accordance with the legislation which states that the school system should be paid “the funds remaining after paying for the lease, lease-purchase or purchase of the… system; paying a contractor for operating the system and paying any administrative costs incurred by the municipality related to the use of the system.”

 

As of June 30, 2011, the Town has remitted a total of $646,366 to the Wake County Public School System in accordance with the definition of clear proceeds which represents approximately 10 percent of the total fines collected since 2004. The Town has retained approximately two percent of the total fines collected to pay direct administrative costs, largely comprised of the salary of one part-time employee.

 

The Town’s contract with Redflex was originally for a period of five years.  When it expired in 2009, a revised contract was entered into with Redflex. Because of concerns about aspects of the enabling legislation, the Town entered into a temporary contract with Redflex under the same general terms but with the provision that either party has the option to terminate the contract upon five days notice. The temporary contract also transferred ownership of the system from Redflex to the Town.

 

Discussion:  Items one through four below summarize staff’s concerns with the enabling legislation, important engineering modifications that have improved safety at SafeLight intersections, concerns with increased staff time devoted to the program, and concerns over improper ticketing of legal left turns.

 

1.     There are questions about aspects of the enabling legislation that have become clearer over the years of operation.  It was expected that some of these concerns would be addressed by the legislature over the years but they have not been and staff is not confident that these concerns will be addressed in the future. The enabling legislation authorizing the program is limited in that it is set up in a manner that resembles a “pilot project”.  Under current legislation, the Town may enter into only one contract for the lease or purchase of the system, which limits our flexibility in managing the overall program.  This circumstance is very unusual and unlike all of the other programs and contracts the Town administers.

As noted above, the current system only monitors 15 of the Town’s 170 intersections.  There is uncertainty regarding whether the program can be upgraded or extended to other intersections, creating the possibility that the most critical intersections in the future may not be the ones that are monitored.

Given our experience with the program over the past eight years, especially in the last several years, it is my conclusion that the General Assembly has not embraced this program and instead has brought greater scrutiny to it.  During the last session of the General Assembly, Senate Bill 187 “Outlaw Red Light Cameras Systems” passed the Senate but was not directly taken up by the House.  Given the limitations noted above, it would be much better to have state wide legislation applying the law throughout all of North Carolina or, at the very least, improving the local legislation.

 

2.     Since the SafeLight Cary program became operational in 2004, the Engineering staff has continued to implement important changes to intersections that we manage including the 15 intersections that are a part of the program.  These improvements have helped us to meet the original goals for the SafeLight program. These improvements include:

·         We have begun using flashing yellow arrow traffic signals at multiple red light enforced intersections that in general have shown a positive impact on safety at signalized intersections. The flashing yellow arrows have allowed staff to improve coordination of signals along several corridors. Improved coordination keeps vehicles in platoons and reduces the number of vehicles approaching the intersection near the end of the green phase.

·         The universal standard for calculating “all red” times – when every vehicle has a red light at an intersection – at signalized intersections has changed in a way that “all red” times are generally longer now. This results in improved safety for those motorists that enter at the very beginning of the red phase.

·         In a specific application, staff has significantly improved coordination on Walnut Street due to targeted analysis of this corridor. It is expected to result in fewer motorists running red lights in the Crossroads area.

 

3.     The Town devotes a significant amount of resources to the Safelight program which has increased significantly in recent months.  As noted above, SafeLight fines pay for a part-time employee to manage certain aspects of the program.  Many other staff are involved in overseeing the program and responding to questions and concerns including staff from the Engineering and Police Departments and a rotating panel of three Town employees who serve as an appeals board for motorists who appeal their citations.  Except for the part-time employee, none of these additional costs are reimbursed through the fines collected.  Recently, Police Department staff responsible for managing the program has noticed a large increase in staff time devoted to the program including increased processing of citations, involving affidavits of non-responsibility and increased questions and complaints from citizens about the program in general.

The program is indirectly referenced as part of a lawsuit regarding the duration of yellow lights at certain intersections (Ceccarelli v. Town of Cary). The North Carolina Department of Transportation sets the standards for yellow light timing that Cary implements at all Town maintained traffic signals. While the plaintiffs in the lawsuit seek refunds of penalty amounts for red light camera violations at certain intersections, the plaintiffs’ main concern is with the duration of the yellow light at those intersections and not with the SafeLight program itself.

 

4.     Finally, a recent citizen complaint to a local media outlet brought to light erroneous violation notices issued to citizens for vehicles making a left turn at the protected permitted left turn signal at Cary Parkway and High House Road. The camera improperly ticketed some legal left turns. Shortly thereafter, the Town instructed the contractor to cease issuing violation notices for left-turning vehicles.

Given the issues outlined in items one through four and considering them all together and balancing them with the advantages of continuing to operate the program, staff believes it is a better course of action to discontinue the program.

If Council elects to discontinue the program, the Town will remove all associated equipment from the 15 intersections. The Police and Engineering Departments will continue to monitor the program intersections, as well as others, to determine if additional improvements are necessary or appropriate for our traffic control and safety efforts.

 

Fiscal Impact:  There is no direct fiscal impact to the Town associated with discontinuing the program.

 

Staff Recommendation:  Staff recommends that Council authorize the Manager to discontinue the program and terminate the agreement with RedFlex in accordance with the terms of the contract.