Lawmakers considering ban on new red-light camera agreements

</div> Texas cities are making a final push to keep their red-light cameras and asking state lawmakers to ditch a plan to phase them out.
Observers expect a final decision on red-light cameras to come down to the very end of the legislative session, which is in its final five days, as lawmakers decide between a House provision that would phase them out and Senate language that would allow them to stay.
While that effort is taking place in Austin, more cities in North Texas are quickly extending contracts with camera companies ó often for 15 to 20 years ó in anticipation that the Legislature will pass a law prohibiting new agreements after Monday.
"Our statistics are overwhelming; they have reduced accidents so much," Bedford Mayor Jim Story said Wednesday, a day after the City Council unanimously extended its contract with Redflex Traffic Systems through 2027. The company operates seven cameras in Bedford.
Violations are reviewed on video three times, once by a Redflex officer and twice by a Bedford police officer, before a $75 ticket is mailed, and the cityís philosophy is to write citations only for blatant violations, Story said.
"Weíre not making citizens pay a price they shouldnít pay," he said.
Long-term deals
Burleson extended its agreement with American Traffic Solutions for 15 years, a city official said this week.
The Fort Worth City Council gave the city manager permission this week to immediately sign an extension through 2018 if it appears that the Legislature will imminently approve a ban on future contracts.
North Richland Hills extended its deal with Redflex through 2013.
Last week, Arlington officials gave the city staff permission to sign a new deal with ATS through 2027, and Southlake extended its terms with Redflex through 2024.
Opponents say itís unwise to enter into such long-term deals.
"Nobody in America makes a 15-year contract for anything," red-light camera opponent and San Angelo-area resident Greg Mauz said in a recent interview. Mauz has long held that cities install the cameras not to save lives but to generate money. "You can hardly get anyone to commit to marriage for 15 years."
But most contracts allow cities to get out by giving notice, typically 120 days, supporters said.
Noting that only 56 Texas cities use red-light cameras, Texas Municipal League Executive Director Frank Sturzl said, "Itís not very many cities in the grand order of things, but those that use them have found them to be successful."
The league has about 1,100 member cities, he said.
Taking a back seat
About a dozen cities in Dallas-Fort Worth have the cameras, and most are enthusiastic about keeping them. But the issue is taking a back seat to a local-option bill that could lead to increased gas taxes or other fees to pay for road and rail improvements.
Many North Texas cities support the local-option bill so strongly that they donít want to muddy the debate by also pushing for permission to keep the cameras.
"I think we ought to put all our eggs into one basket," said Burleson Mayor Ken Shetter, who strongly supports the cameras but is focusing his energy in Austin on passing the local option.
Some lawmakers have expressed frustration that cities are making long-term deals in an attempt to circumvent the will of those who wish the cameras to be turned off. There has been talk that lawmakers might make a camera ban retroactive.
But others believe that the decision on allowing the cameras will rest purely on whether cities should decide whether to use the technology for traffic safety and control.
"I donít get the sense that individual city contracts are the issue," Redflex lobbyist Ray Sullivan said. "Itís more of a philosophical disagreement on the use of cameras for enforcement."
And he added, "Itís going to go down to the wire."

GORDON DICKSON, 817-390-7796