The city of Denton has collected more than $1.8 million from red-light camera violations since installing the cameras in 2006 but has seen little profit, as operating costs exceed revenues, city records show.
Denton police released five years of red-light camera data in response to open-records requests from the Denton Record-Chronicle. They show the number of violations varied by year while total camera expenses surpassed revenues from fines.
The number of accidents at the camera-monitored intersections fluctuated with no clear trend from 2004, before the cameras, to 2009, the most recent year for which accident figures were available.
Police Capt. Scott Fletcher said he believes the cameras have worked as intended by changing driver behavior and reducing violations.
Violations generally have declined once drivers are aware of the cameras, Fletcher said. Total violations rose sharply from 2009 to 2010, but he attributed the increase to more accurate technology, not an increase in red-light running.
"Overall, I certainly think the program is successful in doing what we wanted it to," Fletcher said. "It's monitoring intersections and changing behavior without the expense of putting a police officer out there 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
Red-light cameras, which started popping up in Texas in 2003, have long been a source of controversy.
Supporters say they make intersections safer by reducing crashes caused by red-light runners. Critics say they are a government moneymaking scheme and can increase rear-end accidents, since people may slam on their brakes to avoid a citation.
A 2007 state law created uniform standards and reporting requirements for Texas cities that use the cameras. Bills to ban the cameras failed during the past two legislative sessions, leaving the debate to rage in places like Houston, where a judge last month ruled that a citywide vote to ban the cameras was invalid.
In Denton, which installed six cameras at four intersections in 2006, the city recently added three cameras at two more intersections. City officials have no immediate plans to add more cameras, although their contract with Arizona-based Redflex would allow cameras at four additional intersections, Fletcher said.
The city pays Redflex $4,870 a month to operate each camera, a total that factors in the cost of installing, maintaining and operating the system.
The cameras work around the clock to provide photographs and a short video of vehicles that run red lights. After Redflex and a Denton police officer confirm a violation, the registered owner of the vehicle receives a violation notice with a $75 charge, along with photos of the violation and an Internet link to view a 12-second video.
The penalty is civil, so it doesn't affect driving records or insurance rates.
Denton activated the cameras at four intersections in April 2006 and started sending violation notices a month later. The system netted nearly $180,000 during its first year of operation but lost money in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 budget years, leaving a deficit the city continues to pay as new violation revenue comes in.
Denton originally earmarked profits from red-light cameras for public safety improvements. In 2007, the Legislature required cities to start sending half their earnings to the state to benefit regional trauma centers.
Records released by the city show that profit from 2006 helped pay for traffic enforcement and school crossing safety enhancements. The city paid the state nearly $4,900 in the 2007-08 budget year but sent no more money to Austin after revenues fell, records show. The system turned a profit during the last two budget years but not enough to erase the total deficit, which stands at about $260,000.
Fletcher said the cameras were never about making money. "We always intended from the beginning that if the system is working, the violations should go down" along with revenue, he said. "I didn't think we'd drop off to that extent, but to me it's an indication that the system is working."
The city is protected from losses under a contract clause that says deficits are paid from new violation revenue, not from the city's general fund, he said.
Violations fell steadily during the cameras' first six months of operation. At the time, Fletcher attributed the decrease to public awareness and the city's decision to lengthen the yellow-light intervals at three of the four intersections after people complained about how quickly the lights turned red.
Records show violations continued to fall through 2008 before beginning to climb. From 2009 to 2010, the number of violations more than doubled - to 7,887.
Fletcher attributed that increase to a change in the system.
In late 2009, the city started retrofitting camera-monitored intersections with in-ground loop sensors that measure vehicles' speed as they approach a red light. The sensors replaced pole-mounted devices that were less effective, he said.
"We're catching multiple violations in a cycle of a light" with the new sensors, he said. "We were missing violators before."
Since 2008, the city has been required to send reports to the state documenting accidents at camera-monitored intersections each year. The reports are available on the Texas Department of Transportation's website, but the site did not show a 2010 report from Denton. Fletcher said he could not say whether the city had filed the report.
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BY THE NUMBERS
Red-light violations from May 8, 2006, to May 31, 2011:
• Bell Avenue and Hickory Street (northbound): 8,337
• Bell and Hickory (eastbound): 1,868
• Mayhill Road and Spencer Road (southbound): 6,077
• Mayhill and Spencer (northbound): 5,492
• Oak Street and Carroll Boulevard (westbound): 1,923
• Shady Oaks Drive and Woodrow Lane (eastbound): 9,249
Red-light violations from May 27-31, the first five days of operation for these cameras:
• Fort Worth Drive at Interstate 35E: none
• University Drive at Mayhill (eastbound): 51
• University Drive at Mayhill (westbound): 53
VIOLATIONS BY YEAR
2006 (May 8-Dec. 31): 9,607
2011 (Jan. 1-May 31): 2,989
Total violations: 33,050
FIGHTING A CITATION
Vehicle owners can appeal a violation to a city hearing officer within 30 days of receiving a notice. People found liable at the hearing can appeal the decision to a municipal judge.
The following statistics were collected from May 8, 2006, to May 31, 2011.
• Hearings requested: 881*
• People found liable at hearings: 690**
• People found not liable at hearings: 188
• Decisions appealed to municipal court: 33
• People found liable in court: 22
• People found not liable in court: 11
* includes all requests for a hearing, regardless of whether the violation was resolved before the hearing date.
** includes violations paid prior to a requested hearing and hearings where the owner failed to appear.
SOURCE: Denton Police Department