Dark red-light cameras catch officials off-guard
Provider change blamed for delay

Senta Scarborough
The Arizona Republic
May. 20, 2006 12:00 AM

Bureaucratic delays and an apparent lack of oversight have left red-light cameras across the city dark, surprising several City Council members, including the head of the police subcommittee.

The cameras haven't worked since March when Mesa switched photo-radar providers. Likewise, photo-safety vans that normally snap speeders and serve as a deterrent in school zones and high-collision areas haven't been on the roads in nearly three months.

"There isn't supposed to be a gap (between providers)," said Councilman Kyle Jones, who oversees the police subcommittee. "I thought it was supposed to be a smooth transition . . . I think the best thing is not advertise they are not in business. We certainly don't need a free-for-all."

Councilman Mike Whalen, a former assistant police chief, called the revelation "somewhat disturbing."

"No one had briefed me," he said Wednesday. "I am obviously concerned and more concerned that none of us knew about it. We made a strong argument, and not having it out there is defeating the purpose."

The reduced coverage comes on the heels of the city's record year for traffic fatalities in 2005, with 64 deaths in 61 crashes.

The vans and red-camera lights play key roles in keeping the roads safe. Police officials said that since the program began 10 years ago, intersections with photo-safety cameras have recorded a 20 percent decrease in crashes compared with non-monitored ones.

"I'm astounded. I am really surprised they haven't gone up," Mesa city traffic studies analyst Larry Talley said. "I have complained to several people at the city."

Talley said he had problems getting information about when and where the new contractor, American Traffic Solutions, would be working as promised in the company's contract, and that he had complained to others at the city overseeing the contract.

"I have been disappointed it took them (ATS) so long to realize the complexity of what was involved in the work," Talley said. "We can't get from them the information we need to know."

In late February, the city signed a five-year contract with ATS aimed at more than doubling the locations for photo-radar cameras.

City council members and ATS said they expected only a short gap in service for the 13 existing photo-radar camera intersections, where the poles are up, cameras installed, and systems functioning, but have no power because of a lengthy permitting process with the city and Salt River Project.

Despite the gap, ATS is ahead of schedule and within the terms of the city contract for getting vans on the streets and the cameras functioning. An additional 17 locations in east Mesa are scheduled to be phased in this year.

The vans were purchased last fall but the company has had problems customizing them because they are a different design than they normally work with, ATS officials said.

The company has 180 days to complete the work for cameras and vans after the permits are approved by the city. Most of the permits have now been approved but a few remain outstanding and are expected to be issued soon.

Mesa police Sgt. Chuck Trapani said department has been working closely with ATS to get the cameras back on line. Four vans are expected to hit the streets Monday.

"We are pushing as many buttons as we can," Trapani said. "We are really anxious to get everything operational."

ATS President Jim Tuton said much of the delay came in a misunderstanding of what SRP would require to get power to the cameras.

"The assumption was we could unbolt the old ACS (former contractor) poles and put up ours and be operational in days or hours," Tuton said. "The bottom line was we had to get permits and never ever anticipated it."

Tuton said he has been frustrated with the process but the company has fast-tracked the project and added staff. He hopes the first photo-radar cameras will be turned on June 1.

"We are pushing hard now that we got the permits. We always like to go faster. It is a big project," he said.