By on August 26, 2011

The long battle over the red light camera program in Houston, Texas ended Wednesday. The city council voted 14-1 to repeal the ordinance that granted American Traffic Solutions (ATS) the right to issue automated tickets at fifty intersections throughout the country’s fourth largest city.

“This is a total victory for the voters of Houston,” Citizens Against Red Light Cameras spokesman Philip Owens told TheNewspaper. “The only shame is it took too long to get where we are. Today was more of an exercise in political theater but a win is a win.”

The anti-camera group successfully brought a charter amendment on the red light camera issue before voters in November, and a solid majority rejected photo ticketing. ATS refused to accept the public’s verdict, which meant the loss of $3 million a year in revenue. The company found a federal judge willing to overturn the ballot choice (view ruling), giving Mayor Annise D. Parker an excuse to turn the cameras back on. Feeling heat from the public, Parker backed off and decided it would be best to buy their way out of the contract with ATS, which does not expire until 2014. ATS has claimed the city will owe $25 million if the cameras are shut off.

“We are prepared to pay a reasonable settlement, but what that settlement is is undetermined,” Parker said. “We think they’re on the lower end. ATS — their number keeps growing… If we are in fact told by a judge to pay it, we will figure a way to pay it.”

The council adopted a measure insisting the cameras not only be shut off, but permanently removed as soon as possible in accordance with the law. Judge Lynn N. Hughes issued a management order last year at the request of ATS forcing the cameras to remain up until the case is finally resolved. Houston had agreed to the ATS request.

“I’m going to go back into federal court and ask the judge to rescind his management order so that the cameras can come down in accordance with the contract,” City Attorney David Feldman said. “I have no reason to believe the judge would refuse my request to rescind the order.”

Under the contract, ATS would be required to take down the cameras within 45 days at their expense if Judge Hughes lifts his order.

“There’s ample precedent for cities taking down the cameras,” Feldman said. “For every contract ATS seems to enter into — just following it on the Net — there’s a city taking the cameras down and getting out of the contract.”


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23 Comments on “Houston, Texas Pulls Plug on Red Light Camera Program...”

  • avatar

    What worries me here is that these scumbags will redouble their efforts and come back with a different contract and one that does not violate local/state code. I hope this win stays a win.

  • avatar

    “Under the contract, ATS would be required to take down the cameras within 45 days at their expense if Judge Hughes lifts his order”

    This IS Texas, after all…ATS could save some time and expense by simply allowing the citizens of Houston to “take down” the cameras themselves. Style points could be awarded.

  • avatar

    So the taxpayers pay basically what amounts to $25 million in settlements to save this dumb broads skin.

    I guess we will be paying even more to settle with those brutally beaten by HPD on video to save her skin again.

    What a farce.

    Wait a minute………..I’m in Galveston County. I guess they will be paying.

    • 0 avatar

      You are exactly correct. The people of Houston are so put off by having to pay to run red lights that they now have to pay whether they run them or not.

      (They could have simply gutted it out for another year and then disabled them without any penalty, but hey, what’s $25M when your city is in the middle of a $120M budget shortfall?)

  • avatar

    It’s hard to imagine a local city contract that doesn’t included a “funding out” clause. This clause is present in most city purchasing and leasing contracts to allow the termination of a contract in the event the funding is not available. I’ve never dealt with a city or municipality which was not forced to include such a term in the agreement for multi-year contacts.

    If they have a funding out clause in place, the board should simply refuse further budgeting for the cameras and invoke the clause to end the program.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t know about Houston specifically, but these contracts generally call for the private operator installing and maintaining the equipment — these contracts provide a means for a city to have cameras without paying for the equipment. The cameras should be generating net income for the city.

      If that’s true, then I don’t see what budget there is to cut. If the contract is valid, then there will be early termination language, which probably includes a penalty that is meant to compensate the operator for all of the time and money that it invested in installing the system. Which means that the penalty would be large.

      The smarter thing to have done would have been for the city to extend the yellow light times. What could even be better is to change the law so that the tickets are unenforceable, i.e. some sort of law that allows anyone who challenges such a ticket to prevail. Combine that with a plan to allow the contract to expire without it being renewed, and the cameras become a non-issue. From the sound of things, they’re going to be hit with a substantial penalty that could have been avoided with a bit of effort.

      • 0 avatar

        Extending yellow lights reduces the time that the lights are green, thus reduces the traffic flow and causes back-ups. Safety-wise it’s a good solution, but traffic-wise it isn’t.

        The best solution is for people just not to run the red lights. Then there are no photos, no fines, no profits–nothing.

      • 0 avatar

        traffic-wise it isn’t.

        I’d like to some evidence for that contention. I have serious doubts that you’ll find any proof whatsoever that adding a second to a yellow light does anything to meaningfully reduce traffic flow.

        The best solution is for people just not to run the red lights.

        Well, if Miss America is operating the traffic management system, then she can bring about a world in which we have world peace, a puppy in every home, and perfect compliance with traffic laws.

        But between now and then, perhaps we should focus on more realistic goals. Avoiding photo enforcement altogether and the abuses that it promotes would be a nice start.

      • 0 avatar

        @redav (aka Red light camera Advocate)

        It is not simply a matter of not running red lights.

        You know the game is rigged with shorter yellow times.

        It will not cause undue traffic delays if the yellow light duration is set to the engineering standard well established before the red light hucksters and greedy municipalities created the dangerous mis-timing of traffic lights.

      • 0 avatar

        If a road is so undersized that an extra second on the traffic lights impedes the flow of traffic, then the problem does not rest with the traffic lights.

        The problem is the road is too small for the amount of traffic on that road.

        Making intersections less safe is not the answer to congested roads. By that logic, we should make cars less safe, that way more people will be killed in traffic accidents, thereby reducing our oil consumption and improving the environment.

        Making something less safe to solve another unrelated problem is stupid.

  • avatar

    It would be nice if they reset the lights to what is specified in the FHWA MUTCD as specified in the Houston municipal code and watched the camera’s whither on the vine. NOT GONNA HAPPEN!: ATS would initiate WWIII to prevent that as it would prove properly set lights virtually eliminate red light violations. Imagine what would happen if that word got out.

  • avatar

    These stories make me wonder if ATS counts early termination fees as a revenue stream and forecasts they will make X amount of money this year because they project that Y number of municipalities will break their contracts. Kind of like banks that count on people bouncing checks and missing payments and count the penalties as income.

    • 0 avatar

      I wondered something similar. Seems that ATS always gets its money, one way or another.

    • 0 avatar

      These stories make me wonder if ATS counts early termination fees as a revenue stream and forecasts they will make X amount of money this year because they project that Y number of municipalities will break their contracts.

      I have little doubt that their business model assumes a certain growth and retention rate, and that above-average termination rates would hurt their forecasts.

      These companies must incur considerable costs installing these systems. Their hope would to hurdle those periods and keep these governments as customers, as long-term arrangements allow them to amortize their fixed costs. Early terminations and their loss of future revenues can’t be good for them.

      • 0 avatar

        It is like the Buy Here Pay here sleazy car dealers, their money is made when the car buyer defaults on the loan. The dealer repossesses the car and has already received enough in payments from the sap to make a profit.

        ATS and Reflex are in that small niche of valueless profit seekers, enabled only by the willingness and power of the govt entities that share the money extracted from citizens duped by dangerously short yellow lights.

      • 0 avatar

        It is like the Buy Here Pay here sleazy car dealers, their money is made when the car buyer defaults on the loan.

        I don’t know where you’re getting that comparison. The camera company makes its money from a revenue split. If there’s no contract, then there’s no revenue. If there’s no revenue, then there’s nothing to split. The break fee is low compared to what the cameras could produce if left in place for a period of years.

        The company has built its plan around the expectation that the cities would see the cameras as a source of free money, since the camera operator front loads the costs and manages most of the process, while presumably reducing their need for police time dedicated to traffic enforcement. The company was probably not expecting a backlash, since they have operated without such drama in other markets. I’m sure that all of this is an unwelcome surprise to management and shareholders alike.

  • avatar

    Now if they can get rid of that pesky death penalty thing they may be approaching the 20th century.

  • avatar

    These killer clauses that the cities so eagerly agree to as a poison pill are akin to a sleazy retailer that sells gray market electronic junk with a 50% fee for returns.

  • avatar

    One thing should be clear to other cities. ATS is a greedy, aggressive, predatory company that wants their “pound of financial flesh” regardless of any other issues. Hopefully the way they have treated Houston will make other cities refuse to do any future business with ATS because of their predatory treatment of Houston.
    Maybe, just maybe, Council will order the Houston engineers to set longer yellow intervals to reduce red light violations and improve safety, something the engineers have so far refused to do.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association,, Ann Arbor, MI (frequent visitor to Texas for long stays)

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