Fairfax City may add more red-light cameras

February 20, 2013

Red-light cameras in Fairfax City could be placed about every half-mile within the city limits if a proposal by Police Chief Rick Rappoport is approved.

Fairfax was the first municipality in Virginia to implement the controversial cameras in 1997, after the 1995 Virginia General Assembly allowed them for a 10-year trial period.

In 2005, that trial period ended, and the city was forced to stop using them. A new Virginia law was established two years later, allowing the cameras once again.

In 2011, Fairfax received approval from the Virginia Department of Transportation to re-establish a four-camera red-light program at routes 29 and 50 and at intersections of University Drive and North Street. Those cameras are still in use.

Now, Rappoport wants to increase that from three to 10 intersections. The city no longer requires VDOT approval, thanks to a law passed by the General Assembly last year.

The new law lets municipalities use cameras at a certain number of intersections based on the size of the municipality. Rappoport told the City Council that Fairfax legally could have as many as 10 of its 58 intersections under camera control.

“The city is only six square miles,” Mayor Scott Silverthorne said. “That would be one about every half-mile.”

Fairfax contracts with Australia-based Redflex Traffic Systems to maintain its red-light program. The contract is up for renegotiation, and Rappoport said the city can get a better deal by adding more intersections to the program.

“We are in the process of picking a vendor for the next contract period,” he said during a Feb. 12 City Council work session. “We will get a better price from a vendor if we have 10 intersections, as opposed, for example, to just one.”

Rappoport suggested creating a new staff position — a “motor officer,” at an annual cost of $110,000, including salary and benefits — to oversee the addition of seven intersections to the program.

“The revenues will more than cover the cost of this new position,” he said.

Rappoport said that since the program’s inception in August 2011, the cameras have yielded more than 17,000 approved citations, which cost violators $50 each and have netted the city more than $335,000 in profit.

“Less than 1 percent of those citations are contested,” Rappoport said.

The $335,000 has gone into the city’s general fund, finance director David Hodgkins said.

“I must confess I have never been totally comfortable with this program,” council member Steven Stombres said. “In terms of the revenue, we have all probably told people in the community that this is not a revenue issue, even though it has generated more than $300,000 in profit.”

“I thought this was a revenue-neutral program,” member Dan Drummond said.

Hodgkins said that the profits are a product of the newness of the program’s implementation but that they eventually will diminish. “We will eventually reach diminishing return as behavior changes,” he said.

Despite the profits, Rappoport said, the program is strictly one of safety and has made a difference.

“I don’t concern myself at all with the money-making aspect,” he said. “We operate the program without regard to what the revenue consequences of our decisions are.”

Rappoport said that accident information one year into the program shows there have been no accidents related to “panic stops” and that overall accident numbers are relatively stable.

“There has not been a single rear-end collision attributable to the program,” he said. “The ones that do occur are more likely to be a third or fourth car that rear-ends someone because they are distracted by texting or talking on a cellphone.”

Silverthorne tabled the discussion to a later council work session.

“There are some lingering questions on the part of council that will be best served by delaying this process,” he said. “I myself support this program, but I have concerns about expanding it from three to 10 intersections . . . it seems excessive. On top of that, we are talking about creating staff positions to administer the program. Let’s bring this back for an additional work session.”

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