Red light-camera systems a balancing act for municipalities

You know those cameras that take your picture and send you a ticket if you blow through a red light? It may not seem like it, but their existence reveals a local government paradox.

Since the cameras cost so much to run, they have to catch enough offenders per day to be worth the cost. In essence, a program designed to deter crime can only afford to operate if said crime continues.


So when a new Pennsylvania law allows many suburban municipalities to install red light-cameras come October, they’ll face a dilemma. They can make their trouble-intersections safer, but will they catch enough people to cover costs?

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The state’s Transportation Advisory Commission says no.

“Red light-camera systems are a balancing act,” said Jenny Robinson, spokeswoman for AAA MidAtlantic. “Too successful and then they may be overly profit driven, but, not enough violations and then the program doesn’t pay for itself and then it could become a burden to taxpayers.

“Because if a municipality is losing money on the program then they have to come up with that money from somewhere,” she says.

Lower Merion Police Superintendent Michael McGrath says his township is still researching if the cameras are a good fit.

“We’re looking at our traffic statistics for the entire township … and we’re checking with other locations that have utilized the red light-cameras in the past,” he said.

At least in high-traffic Philadelphia, the cameras more than pay for themselves.

In 2011, the city’s red-light cameras covered costs by more than $7 million.

While suburban cameras aren’t likely to see anywhere near that revenue, outlying townships will have another piece of information to consider as they make their decision.

According to the state, at intersections that have been monitored for three or more years, Philadelphia has seen a 66 percent drop in traffic fatalities.

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