Eyes on the road

Beware if you're thinking of running a red light in the capital city. Seven more intersections will have cameras snapping photos of cars (and their license plates) that break the law.

01:00 AM EDT on Thursday, May 18, 2006

Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE -- Motorists from Silver Lake to the East Side will have to be especially alert in the coming months. City officials have selected seven more busy intersections for the installation of red light cameras.

Although cameras will monitor only one or two approaches at most of the intersections, one has been singled out for cameras on all four approaches: Smith Street and River Avenue in Elmhurst.

The frequency of accidents and the number of traffic tickets, as well as the layout and other characteristics of an intersection, determine where cameras will be placed, according to Alan R. Sepe, acting city director of public property, who is overseeing the installations.

City officials can only recommend a particular approach for a camera placement. The Rhode Island Department of Transportation makes the decision.

Providence's red-light camera program is an experiment sanctioned by state government. A law enacted by the General Assembly and the governor last year empowers any municipality to use cameras to cite violators of traffic signals, but it was written to expire July 19, 2008.

Annual reports regarding the performance of the cameras, including the number of tickets issued, the number of accidents where cameras are located and details of the accidents, as well as the maintenance cost of the cameras and the revenue produced, must be submitted to the state. State legislators would use that information to determine if the law will be made permanent.

Cranston, Middletown and other municipalities are exploring the potential of red-light cameras. Rep. John J. McCauley, D-Providence, has a bill in the General Assembly that would make the law permanent.

Affiliated Computer Services, a Dallas company that has a contract with Providence to install, maintain and monitor the red-light cameras, has received numerous inquiries from Rhode Island municipalities interested in doing business, McCauley said yesterday.

But Affiliated Computer Services has said that, given the lead time required, it is too risky now for the company to invest the money to install camera systems outside Providence if the law that allows them might be repealed in two years, according to McCauley.

The state and the city split the ticket revenue and Affiliated Computer Services is paid a certain amount per approach from the city's share.

"I don't think you'd see any additional installations in other communities unless the sunset [provision] is removed" so the company can be sure of an adequate return on its money, McCauley said.

Each time a traffic light turns red, the more green might show up in the city's coffers. Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline is counting on $1.8 million to $1.9 million in net revenue from the tickets for red-light violations to balance the city's 2006-2007 fiscal year budget.

Cameras are operating and $75 tickets for red-light violations are being issued at three approaches: Raymond Street northbound at Chalkstone, Oakland southbound at Chalkstone, both in Smith Hill, and Eaton Street eastbound at Huxley Avenue, in Elmhurst.

The additional approaches selected, and the tentative target dates for the cameras to be made operational, are:

Steeple Street westbound at Canal Street, at the foot of College Hill (date pending DOT approval); Valley Street northbound and southbound at River Avenue, in the Valley neighborhood (June 27); Pocasset Avenue eastbound and southbound at Webster Avenue, in Silver Lake (Aug. 8); Hope Street northbound at Doyle Avenue, on the East Side (Aug. 11); Eaton westbound at Huxley (Aug. 14); Empire Street southbound at Westminster Street, in Downcity (Aug. 15); all four approaches at River and Smith (Aug. 25); and Memorial Boulevard eastbound, westbound and northbound at Exchange Street, near Providence Place mall downtown (Aug. 29).

The City Council has limited the Cicilline administration to installations at a maximum 25 approaches. Seven more approaches have yet to be disclosed.

"Right now we're studying more approaches," Sepe said.

The camera at Steeple and Canal streets had been tentatively scheduled to become operational on May 16. But Sepe said the company is awaiting approval from the DOT before it completes that installation. It can be completed in less than a week of receiving the OK, Sepe said.

The recent rainy weather has caused minor delays, according to Sepe.

Before the DOT approves an installation, the city is expected to fix anything that might contribute to drivers inadvertently running red lights, including visual obstructions such as low-hanging trees.

Once a camera becomes operational, only written warnings can be issued for the first 30 days. A company employee looks at digital photographs and videotape of apparent violations and recommends that tickets be issued, but it is up to the police whether or not a ticket goes out.

Lt. Timothy Lee, who is in charge of enforcement, said the police can also use the images to issue tickets for other infractions, such as making an illegal right turn on red and obstructing traffic.

Civil libertarians have resisted the red-light camera program, and the legislation that allows the cameras has provisions intended to mollify critics.

For example, some people wanted the cameras to take photos of drivers as well as the cars and their registration plates. But others thought it would be an unnecessary invasion of privacy to photograph the interiors of vehicles. Driver photos were ruled out.

Civil libertarians have complained that using cameras to catch red-light runners is merely a precursor to using the cameras to catch speeders, too, and that might well be ahead.

McCauley recalled that using the cameras against speeders "was part of the original package," but he and other advocates decided to take what he called "incremental steps" that would "let people feel comfortable" with the technology before it is put to a second use.

McCauley introduced a bill this year that would allow the police to use the cameras to snare speeders. But he said he has not made it a priority for this legislative session.

gsmith@projo.com / (401) 277-7334