By on August 15, 2011

Another twist in the red light camera saga in Houston, Texas could leave photo enforcement vendor American Traffic Solutions (ATS) out in the cold. Later today US District Court Judge Lynn N. Hughes is expected to decide whether to grant ATS a restraining order that would prevent America’s fourth largest city from deactivating its automated ticketing machines. Voters in November enacted a charter amendment prohibiting camera use, but Hughes personally decided to overturn their ballot choice saying the voters just “want to run red lights.”

That ruling has not gone over well with the public, and Mayor Annise Parker has been feeling the heat from members of the public and the city council. Late last week Parker reversed course and scheduled a vote this Wednesday that will allow the council decide how to proceed on the issue. The sudden shift left ATS furious.

“In an unprecedented and colossal flip‐flop in position, the city’s mayor has decided to invite city council to again breach its agreement with ATS by placing an agenda item on next week’s council meeting to pass a resolution to turn the red light cameras off,” ATS lawyer Andy Taylor wrote in a court brief filed Friday. “Should council vote to eradicate this public safety program, ATS will incur irreparable harm for which no remedy at law exists.”

With seventy cameras, Houston represents one of the largest single contracts for ATS, and the permanent loss of the city would deliver a massive financial blow to the company which just last month lost the contract with America’s second largest city, Los Angeles, California.

“The city of Houston’s decision to turn the red light cameras off, back on, and now, most likely back off again, has negatively impacted ATS’ ability to do business, including its ability to negotiate contracts in other cities for its services,” ATS General Counsel George Hittner wrote. “Representatives from other cities have expressed concern to ATS personnel about the situation in Houston. ATS’s employees, investors and contractors have also expressed concern about the strength of ATS’ Texas customer contracts and ATS’ contract obligations with third-party vendors.”

Hittner is the son of Judge David Hittner, who has served alongside Hughes for the past twenty-five years. So far, Hughes has sided with Hittner in every important decision, going so far as to exclude the charter amendment sponsors from defending their initiative in court. The sponsors say one way or another those cameras will be turned off, and that ATS should let it rest.

“They poured everything they could into Houston and still lost,” Citizens Against Red Light Camera spokesman Philip Owens told TheNewspaper. “They can’t get over it.”


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13 Comments on “Houston, Texas Mayor Flip Flops on Red Light Cameras...”

  • avatar

    I personally look forward to voting out city council members that stand by ATS.

    • 0 avatar

      Why not instead start the process of changing the city charter? That’s where the problem lies–it was the city charter that negated the referendum. Also, for anyone pushing to break the contract, where the $20M will come from to pay the breach of contract fees, especially considering the city’s $120M budget shortfall?

      So you guys don’t like RLCs; fine, I get that. But instead of crying like little babies, let the city government–who, you will notice, is trying to do what the people want–just fulfill the contract and then not renew, thus achieving what the noisy people want, just a little bit later & minus the budget-crushing expenses.

  • avatar

    the revenue sharing portion of this fish stinks the most. Charge the city a King’s Ransom for the devices and then if they still go forward:

    They must weigh the upfront costs against expected revenue.
    ATS doesn’t have a hand in motorists pocket.
    Cities can mothball or reactivate the cameras depending on sentiment, elections, or whatever.

  • avatar

    It would be interesting if ATS has to bring a breach of contract suit against the city, if the city would be entitled to a jury trial? The city would certainly want a jury. Can you imagine the citizens of Houston being asked to decided the damages to award ATS? My guess, $0.01.

  • avatar

    I think the legality of a private company collecting fines through the State would raise eyebrows. How about I pay the State their portion and tell ATS to pound sand?

  • avatar

    If a city subject to a contract is worried about the repurcussions of breaching the contract but wants to accommodate its citizens, why not, in the name of public safety, simply add a couple seconds to the yellow on every light with a camera and erect clear signage warning drivers where the cameras are until the contracts run out? If the contracts stipulate yellow light times and an absence of warning signage, I think those provisions would be pretty easy to void as a matter of public policy. Another idea – make the tickets really easy to contest; e.g., by providing strong evidence that the person to whom the citation was issued was actually driving the car. Again, I’ve got to believe that a contract that tries to keep a city from doing this would be voidable. Take away the lion’s share of the revenue, and won’t these companies be more inclined to take a hike??

    • 0 avatar

      All of the intersections with cameras actually do have warning signs, often in all directions even when only one direction is monitored by the cameras. Despite this, traffic management in the part of Houston where I live is setup to really, really encourage red-light running – often employing traffic light timing on high speed (45-55 mph limit) roads such that you have to perform an emergency stop every few thousand feet. We also use protected left turns only (the left turn light is red when the normal light is green) which results in most intersections only having a green in any given dirextion for ~ 25% of the time.

    • 0 avatar
      George B

      All Houston has to do is make sure traffic light timing meets safety standards and change the law for right turn on red to allow cars to legally roll past the stop bar, stop, and then turn right on red. Remove most of the right turn on red tickets and the cameras can’t make money. Eliminate excessively short light timing and red light camera revenue drops further. Make ATS beg to get out of a money-losing contract.

    • 0 avatar

      Adding a couple seconds to yellow lights does reduce red light running, but it also reduces the total traffic going through the intersection per unit time. In other words, traffic backs up more because more time is spent with no one going through the intersection.

  • avatar

    The initial decision to throw the mayor’s office in with ATS was dead wrong for a number of reasons. Now that people are snooping behind the curtains and under the rugs, it was downright stupid.

    Best punt this to cool off those looking around in dark corners with flashlights.

  • avatar

    Wouldn’t the fact of the son of a friend for over two decades being involved in the case be sufficient reason to recuse oneself?

    Yes, that was rhetorical. Sadly.

  • avatar

    How do you get the cameras out of your city, when the camera company is so deeply entrenched?

    After all, the camera company has spent a great deal of money installing the cameras, so you can’t just cancel the contract – the company will litigate and get a multi-million dollar judgment against the city.

    I suggest this compromise:

    Let the cameras continue to run, but limit or prohibit automated ticketing on rolling rights (the Tennessee legislature recently enacted just such a prohibition), raise the yellows on left turns to a minimum of 4 seconds, and add 1/2 second or more to all straight-thru yellows. These very small adjustments will cause ticketing to drop to less than half of what it was before, and because of the “Flexible Payment Plan” or “Cost Neutrality” found in most contracts, the monthly rent owed to the camera company will go way down, too. (Someone may argue that motorists will get used to the longer yellows, and resume running the light when, in fact, running stays down, indefinitely, after a yellow is lengthened. There is no “rebound.” See: )

    Can a city do these things (above) without handing the camera company a cause of action? Listen to what the Tennessee Attorney General wrote, last week, about their new rolling right ban: “While Chapter 425 might arguably diminish the income received under a revenue-sharing agreement [Flexible Payment Plan, or Cost Neutrality] by reducing the number of traffic citations issued, any expected revenue stream was always necessarily contingent on the citizens of the state violating the law in certain numbers. That contingency tends to suggest that the parties have no ‘vested right’ in a particular level of revenue.” ( )

    Please note that any change regarding rolling right tickets must be nuanced. If the city has directed, allowed or caused the camera company to install cameras on lanes which are used exclusively for right turns (no option to drive straight-through), the company could successfully argue that an all-out ban on rolling right tickets unfairly deprives it of any revenue from the equipment it installed on said lanes. If this situation obtains in your city, I suggest that instead of an outright ban, you enact a limit on rolling right ticketing – such as a requirement that the vehicle’s speed over the detection loops (called the “trigger speed” or the “threshold speed” and typically set at 10 – 18 mph) must be in excess of 20 mph, before a right-turn ticket can issue. In this way, the camera company would still get some income from the equipment it installed to monitor the dedicated right-turn lanes. And the city would not be seen to be giving a free pass to people who race around corners at ultra high speeds.

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