Note: This story was last updated at 11:40 a.m. March 4.
The Oak Ridge City Council postponed a vote on traffic cameras on Monday. Council had been expected to either extend the five-year contract with the camera vendor, Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. of Arizona, or terminate it.
But council member Chuck Hope had to leave unexpectedly, and it wasn’t clear that there would be a majority to either extend the contract for two years or end it. That meant that both resolutions could have failed in 3-3 votes.
Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson said the contract could now be discussed during a March 24 special meeting or during the regular April meeting. But the current contract expires April 21.
Before postponing its decision, the Council had agreed, in a 4-1-1 vote, to amend a resolution extending the contract in order to allow camera locations to be changed, use mobile units, and renegotiate the revenue split from the $50 citations issued by the automated devices. So far, Redflex has kept about $3.6 million of the roughly $6.2 million in citation revenues, while the city has collected $2.6 million, or roughly 42 percent.
Changes to the current contract would require a city-funded traffic study. A renegotiated contract would still have to be approved by council.
Voting for the amendment to change the contract on Monday were Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan, Mayor Pro Tem Jane Miller, and council members Anne Garcia Garland and Charlie Hensley.
Council member David Mosby voted no, and Council member Trina Baughn abstained.
But the amended resolution to extend the contract was then postponed in a 6-0 vote.
Before he left, Hope had said he would vote to not renew the current camera contract. (Hope’s father, Chuck Hope Sr., died early Tuesday morning.)
Council members who supported a continuation of the camera program, but possibly with some changes, said the four systems have helped combat a “culture of speed” on local roadways and freed up police officers at no cost to the taxpayers.
“It’s made all of us slow down,” Miller said.
She said Oak Ridge works hard to promote a “culture of safety,” and she disputed assertions that the controversial cameras, which issue tickets to drivers who speed or run red lights, have had a negative economic impact. She said the tourism business is booming in historic Jonesborough, Tenn., and that city has cameras.
If the cameras prevent one accident or prevent harm to even one child, then they have been successful, Miller said. If you don’t want a ticket in Oak Ridge, she said, “All you have to do is obey the law.”
Still, Miller supported some changes to the existing program. So did Hensley. Beehan, who said a “culture of speed” had existed when the camera contract was first approved in August 2008, said he supported Redflex, although he also endorsed the recommended contract changes.
“Nobody likes the cameras,” Beehan said. “But it frees up police officers.”
Garcia Garland said she has a Fourth Amendment objection to the four camera systems in Oak Ridge, and she expressed concern about unintended consequences, including a possible increase in traffic and vehicle speeds on side roads as drivers seek to avoid the devices.
“I feel victimized by those cameras,” said Garcia Garland, who lives on one of those frequently traveled back roads. “The rate of speed has increased.”
She suggested ending the contract, but she also advocated for a higher revenue share for the city, possibly at least 60 percent, if the program is continued.
Mosby, who voted against the original contract in 2008, proposed a transition away from the cameras, rather than a “blanket removal.” Adding mobile units would be “piling onto an unplanned situation,” Mosby said, citing a lack of adequate data before the cameras were installed and since they began operating in April 2009.
“The whole idea behind the cameras was never anchored like it should be,” Mosby said.
Hope also cited the lack of a true traffic study when the cameras were installed five years ago at Oak Ridge Turnpike and New York Avenue/Lafayette Drive, Oak Ridge Turnpike at the High School, Robertsville Road and North Illinois Avenue, and Robertsville Road near Willow Brook Elementary and Robertsville Middle schools.
“There is no better deterrent than a police officer,” Hope said.
If the cameras haven’t directly affected businesses, there is a perception that they have, Hope said.
He said the city needs to decide if it is the traffic camera business, or whether it is using the devices only to make roads safer. If the city wants to use them for safety, then a full traffic study is needed, Hope said.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
See previous story on traffic camera revenues here.
See a preview story on the council meeting here.
See previous story on crashes and vehicle speeds near the cameras here.