Texas banned red light cameras in June, joining at least seven states that have halted use of the traffic devices, which advocates say save lives but which ran into controversy over that claim and other problems.
The measure outlawing red-light cameras also ended the use of school bus cameras, which take pictures of motorists passing stopped school buses discharging students. Whether that was the legislature’s intent wasn’t clear; the author of the bill, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), did not respond to requests for comment.
As a result, at least a dozen Texas school districts that signed contracts with the now-defunct Dallas County Schools, the public agency that worked with a private company for years to outfit buses with the cameras, will never see a penny of revenue for the plan that they were told would add millions of dollars to their coffers.
Most districts in Texas — with at least one major exception — have also stopped issuing tickets for the violations. The Austin school district is continuing its program.
“We never saw any money,” Eanes school district spokeswoman Claudia McWhorter said in an email. The district dropped the technology last year.
“The Texas market has decided that automated enforcement isn’t in the best interest of the citizens,” said Jean Souliere, CEO of Bus Patrol America. His company purchased the technology and took over the contracts of Force Multiplier, the private company involved in bus camera deals and which closed in 2017 amidst a stack of federal public corruption indictments. The case sent DSC Superintendent Rick Sorrells to prison along with several public officials.
Souliere said the districts were still in the “recoup” phase of their contracts when the legislation took effect. The contracts called for all revenue from tickets to go to the company until the cost of installing the video technology was recouped. Only then were districts supposed to begin receiving a cut of the ticket income.
While the districts are not out any cash, they are left with a failed program and contracts that have essentially been nullified by the law.
The districts, mostly small, bought into a plan promoted by Sorrells and Force Multiplier starting around 2013. Sorrels and Force Multiplier promised that the cameras would eventually generate revenue for the districts.
What the Force Multiplier officials didn’t make clear was that the cost to outfit a bus with the camera and other technology would total about $10,000 per bus, costs that would be paid upfront through the $300 tickets issued to violators.
The new law ensures that no one who struck a deal with DCS will see a penny.
“The technology had not been paid for when the legislation was passed,” Souliere said. “There was never enough money in the program.”
Under the ticketing arrangement, a school district allows the cameras to be placed on buses. A local law enforcement agency then reviews tapes of accused violators and tickets when warranted.
At least 16 states have laws allowing the stop-arm cameras, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Dallas Police Department removed its website portal for paying stop-arm tickets while other departments and districts that had signed up with DCS have simply stopped issuing citations.
Supporters of the legislation that halted the camera enforcement in Texas included Tea Party members and their conservative colleagues, while opposition came from municipalities, particularly in the Dallas and Austin areas.
Many of those in opposition felt the technology was imprecise and that the danger presented from those running red lights or driving past stopped school buses was overstated.
“It was more about revenue,” said Byron Schirmbeck, state coordinator for the Texas Campaign for Liberty, who spoke in favor of the bill at legislative hearings. “These cameras were contracted through companies that have no obligation to the Constitution and their goal is to issue as many tickets as they can and hope that you pay.”
He noted the paltry collection rate on school bus camera violations – about 50 percent – and said “[districts] have always known they were dancing on the line in issuing these.”
The violations did not cause problems for motorists, such as a hold on a vehicle registration renewal, that toll road or other moving violations do.
Supporters of the school bus cameras contend they give needed protection to children.
“From a policy standpoint of protecting youth, it’s a good law,” said Jim Adler, a personal injury lawyer in Houston. “It’s an important law and people should be paying those citations.”
The chief financial officer of American Traffic Solutions — now known as Verra Mobility, which holds a number of red-light camera and school-bus contracts in the state — told investors last week in an earnings call that the new Texas red-light camera law would cause an $11 million hit to earnings this year.
CFO Tricia Chiodo told investors to expect “muted service revenue with the loss of Texas red-light program” but assured them that in Texas, “the school zone speed revenue will be ramping up over the back half of the year.”
One of Verra Mobility’s largest school bus camera clients believes the law signed in June doesn’t apply to them.
“Austin ISD will continue to operate the Stop-Arm Camera Program under a City of Austin ordinance that is not affected by recent legislation,” school district spokeswoman Tiffany Knudtson said in an email. “House Bill 1631 does not affect the city’s ordinance and the city has no plans to repeal it at this time.”
The district is basing its position on a city ordinance that explicitly allows school bus cameras.
Austin school district police, who administer the program, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
But ticketed motorists are already refusing to pay the districts.
“I’m not paying it,” said John Lash, an Austin motorist who received a ticket in the mail in December alleging that he unlawfully passed a school bus. Lash appealed and told a magistrate that he was waved ahead by the school bus driver. The magistrate didn’t believe him and said the $300 fine remained in effect.
“In researching this, I am realizing that if you don’t pay, it doesn’t go on your driving record, so they can send me all the bills they want,” Lash said.
On Sept. 25, Andrea Senkarik will face the music for her Austin district ticket, which dates to May. She has no problem with the idea of keeping rogue drivers from zipping past stopped school buses.
“But I don’t like the idea of a third party making money off of it,” Senkarik said. “I don’t want to give my money to them.”
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].