Red-light cameras spread
By Will Oremus

Five years ago, Redwood City considered installing cameras at busy intersections to catch drivers running red lights.

But there were problems with the technology -- tickets were being thrown out across the state because the images provided by the cameras were inconclusive -- and Redwood City put its plans on hold.

Now that the technology has improved, not only is Redwood City considering red-light cameras again, the devices also seem to be cropping up all over San Mateo County. With police budgets tight, a handful of cities are following the lead of San Mateo, which installed cameras in 2005 and has hauled in about $300,000 during the past year from the tickets.

Millbrae began issuing its first red-light tickets last week for violations at Millbrae Avenue and Rollins Road. Belmont has tested one vendor's system and is considering others. Burlingame is sorting out a few last questions from its city council before moving forward with tests.

San Mateo, which has cameras at two intersections and is adding cameras at a third intersection, has had few problems with its tickets standing up in court, police Capt. Kevin Raffaelli said.

``We sort of were the prototype in this county for it, and we did our homework,'' Raffaelli said. ``If you get a red-light citation from us, absent a misidentification, it's a valid citation. We don't just let the cameras issue tickets -- we review every one of them at the police station.''

The cameras typically come with a guarantee that they won't cost the city money -- the camera company will study intersections first to make sure cities can make a profit.

In San Mateo, the program has been lucrative. With courts in California authorized to fine red-light violators as much as $350, the city has taken in about three times as much money from the red-light tickets in the past year as from all other moving violations combined, according to figures provided by Hossein Golestan, the city's finance director.

The revenue could decline as people realize the cameras are there and adjust their behavior, Golestan said.

Indeed, a common refrain from cities considering the technology is that the goal is safety, not money. ``If we get to a position where we're not issuing any citations, that's a win-win for us,'' Raffaelli said.

But money plays a role.

``We get recurring complaints from people in the community that we need more traffic enforcement,'' Burlingame City Manager Jim Nantell said. ``With tighter budgets, we don't get to do as much as we'd like to. This is a way to do it without having to pay $100,000 a year, including benefits, for extra employees.''

Millbrae City Manager Ralph Jaeck said that at this point, red-light cameras are almost a no-brainer for small cities that suffer from traffic problems. After budget cuts, Millbrae can field only about four officers on the street at any given time, Jaeck said, so the city will take assistance from technology.

As for Redwood City, it is again going through the process it began five years ago, studying intersections to see if there are enough violations to justify the cameras.

``We want to be sure that it really would provide a benefit,'' Mayor Barbara Pierce said. ``Community members have raised the question: Is this a revenue generator? We want it to be a safety incentive.''