After years of battling local governments, opponents of red light traffic cameras appeared to have the political momentum this spring to shut them off across Texas.
However, on Wednesday morning during a hearing before the state Senate Transportation Committee, that effort ran into its own red-light.
Activists who had prepared to speak in favor of state Sen. Bob Hall’s Senate Bill 653 told committee members they had changed their minds after hearing that Hall had allowed a revision that would grandfather in the automated traffic light systems in several Texas cities.
“Here we go again,” Byron Schirmbeck, Texas director for the nonprofit Campaign for Liberty, told the committee. “If you pass a ban in Texas and you don’t get rid of all of the cameras in the state, then you haven’t passed a ban.”
The Transportation Committee left SB653 pending and those on both sides of the controversy wondering what would become of the bill.
The answer is likely to come when the House version of the bill, without the grandfather clause, is heard for the first time by the House Committee on Transportation, as soon as next week.
State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, who has long considered red-light cameras a violation of the state constitution and a municipal revenue grab, announced in February that he’d gotten more than 100 Republican and Democratic House members to sign on to his House Bill 1631. In past sessions, bills aimed at killing red-light cameras have passed in the Senate only to wither away in House committees.
“The legislature is a slow-moving giant and we are finally here,” Stickland said in announcing his House colleagues’ support.
Hall, R-Edgewood, made it clear during the hearing that he supports legislation getting rid of the cameras altogether. He was persuaded to add grandfather language, he said, because some cities might not be able to get out of their contracts with red-light camera companies.
Stickland has told supporters of his bill he will refuse any attempt to add grandfathering language. He has not responded to repeated requests by The Texas Monitor to discuss his bill.
Any anti-red-light camera bill would affect 34 Texas cities, according to the latest data from the Texas Department of Transportation. Austin, Dallas, El Paso and Fort Worth are the largest cities in the state with camera systems.
The cameras are major revenue generators for their cities and for the state, which collects 50 percent of camera citation revenue from the cities. Since 2007 cameras have generated nearly $700 million, according to Texas Comptroller’s Office data.
Should that spigot be turned off, the cities and the state would no longer split $40 million a year, according to the Legislative Budget Board.
In past sessions state officials have fought similar bills because of their impact on the funding of trauma centers around the state, ostensibly the reason current law gives the state a split of red-light income. The Legislative Budget Board has estimated a loss of more than $14 million a year for trauma centers if the camera systems are banned.
However, as The Texas Monitor has reported, most of that money has been redirected in previous sessions to plug holes in the state budget.
Smaller cities have also come to depend heavily on the revenue from red-light tickets. Sugar Land, with a population of just 88,000 southwest of Houston, has budgeted nearly $1 million in net income from its program this fiscal year. Irving, population 240,000 west of Dallas, got nearly $3 million from citations last year, but spent nearly a third of it to operate its system.
Police department spokespersons from around the state told the committee that red-light cameras make their communities safer.
The Austin City Council has authorized its police department to expand its red-light program from the current 10 intersections but is holding off until the legislature decides on its fate, Sgt. Michael Barger, coordinator for the program, told The Texas Monitor.
Should the program survive, Barger said, the continued ticket revenue will be invested in improved technology to reduce the number of crashes at high-traffic intersections. The technology can delay the change of a traffic light when it detects that an approaching car won’t be able to stop, thus preventing crossing traffic from entering the intersection.
“We’d prefer to operate our red-light program at break-even and take our revenue and put it back into safety, like this crash avoidance system,” Barger said. “This isn’t about the money, it’s about safety.”
Several other cities have moved in the opposite direction. Voters in Houston ended the red-light camera program in 2011, followed by Arlington, Victoria and Rock Rock. Most recently, Corpus Christi ended its program in 2017.
That year, Case Western Reserve University published a damning study of red-light camera systems focusing on accident data from Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. Researchers found the systems produced no reduction in accidents, no reduction in the number of people injured in those accidents and no discernible decrease in serious-injury accidents.
In addition to the political pressure, a class action lawsuit on behalf of potentially hundreds of people in dozens of cities is slowly making its way to the Texas Supreme Court.
As The Texas Monitor has reported, Irving attorney Russell Bowman, who successfully fought his own red-light ticket years ago, is contending that millions of dollars in red-light tickets were issued illegally because few cities did legally required engineering studies to confirm the systems’ alleged effects on traffic safety.
Bowman said he is hopeful the state Supreme Court will hear arguments in his case this summer.
Schirmbeck, who curates a website that shows people how to beat their red-light camera tickets, said he and other activists intend to pressure legislators to pass a bill without any grandfather clause.
“I’m cynical after 10 years of doing this,” he said. “A lot of House members signed on to this, no grandfather. But did they sign on because they want it to pass or did they sign or because they knew there was no chance it would pass? I guess we’ll see.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected]