Residents of Texas’ top collector of red light camera revenue say they’re ready to “ban the cams” in their city.
“Welcome to the easiest campaign you will ever work on,” says Kelly Canon, who’s spearheading the effort to abolish Fort Worth’s unpopular red-light cameras.
Canon led the successful drive to ban red light cameras in Arlington in 2015. She explained at a campaign kickoff meeting last week how Fort Worth voters can repeat that success in 2018.
Canon says the key is to get the issue on the ballot.
“Once it’s on the ballot, it’s easy,” says Canon. “People either vote for or against the cameras – and usually they vote against them.”
Voters have banned red light cameras in seven Texas cities: Arlington, Baytown, College Station, Conroe, Dayton, Houston, and League City. Canon is confident Fort Worth will be the eighth.
Teams of grassroots activists are already busy collecting signatures on a petition to put the red light camera ban to a citywide vote.
The state’s Local Government Code says a petition to amend a city’s charter must be signed by 20,000 or five percent of the city’s registered voters. Canon’s group is aiming to collect 25,000 petition signatures by July 5. Once it certifies the petitions, city council will place the proposed charter amendment on the November 6 ballot:
“The City of Fort Worth shall not use photographic traffic signal enforcement systems to civilly, criminally, or administratively enforce any state law or City Ordinance against the owner or operator of a vehicle operated in violation of a traffic control signal… nor shall it collect any money from any recipient of a Notice of Violation issued, in whole or in part, in connection with the use of a photographic traffic signal enforcement system.”
With a city bond package on the November ballot as well, Canon expects strong voter interest.
Canon also expects red light camera vendor American Traffic Solutions (ATS) to mount a strong campaign to fight the ban, as they did in Arlington. But despite being outspent by ATS $75,000 to $3,000 in that contest, the drive to shut down the cameras won. Arlington voters overwhelmingly adopted a red-light camera ban with 60 percent of the vote and a record-setting municipal election turnout. Voters also tossed out the city’s pro-camera mayor.
At the ballot box and in the legislature, taxpayers are up against the “camera lobby” – camera vendors like ATS lobbying city officials and lawmakers to keep their lucrative “policing for profit” programs going. Canon says Fort Worth’s current contract with ATS runs through 2026.
“Municipalities are being sold by snake-oil salesmen who promise the cameras will make city streets safer and make money,” Canon told Texas Scorecard. But she says it’s really a revenue scheme being sold as a safety program – a cash cow that neither cities nor camera companies want to part with.
Red light cameras generate an estimated $100 million a year for Texas cities. Fort Worth has raked in more than $60 million in revenue from the cameras since state law allowed them starting in 2008 – more than any other municipality in the state.
Fort Worth is one of about 50 cities across Texas currently operating red-light cameras. Fifty-eight photo-enforced traffic citation cameras are installed at 44 intersections across the city.
Those cameras issued nearly a quarter-million citations last year.
The city says it’s seen a significant reduction in accidents at those intersections since installing the cameras. But Canon points to a number of studies that show red light cameras at intersections actually increase accidents.
While debate continues whether they improve public safety or just generate money, the fundamental problem with red light cameras is that they are unconstitutional, says Canon.
Conservative activists and lawmakers have argued for years that photo-enforced traffic citations violate drivers’ due process rights. Cities don’t have to prove who was driving the ticketed cars, and wrongly-accused drivers aren’t able to fight charges in front of a jury trial.
“Those of us who have been in the fight against red light cameras will attest that these cameras are not about safety, but are yet another unconstitutional overreach by these municipalities,” members of the Texas Conservative Grassroots Coalition told Gov. Greg Abbott in a 2017 letter calling for a statewide camera ban. Canon was the first to sign the letter, along with then-Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright, Tarrant County Republican Party Chairman Tim O’Hare, and nearly 100 others.
Fort Worth’s red light camera ticketing program may not comply with state law either. An investigation last year found most Texas cities that operate red light cameras – including Fort Worth – didn’t get state-mandated traffic engineering studies before installing their cameras.
Canon says her group’s ultimate goal is still to ban red light cameras statewide. “We’re hoping to send a very strong message to our state legislature in 2019,” Canon said. “Get rid of cameras in Texas.”
In the 2017 regular session, a ban bill authored by State Sen. Bob Hall (R–Edgewood) passed the Texas Senate with bipartisan support – after it was amended to exclude school bus stop-arm cameras – but died in the House.
State Sen. Don Huffines (R–Dallas), who co-authored Hall’s 2017 bill, says he plans to introduce new legislation in 2019 to ban all red light cameras. Half the state’s red-light cameras are within Huffines’ district.
“Red light cameras are unpopular, unsafe, and unjust,” Huffines said in a press statement. “It’s past time to turn off every red light camera in Texas.”
Fort Worth citizens aren’t waiting around for the legislature to act, though. State law empowers them to hold their local government accountable, and they’re taking responsibility to resolve the red light camera problem locally.