All along, public officials responsible for Philadelphia’s red-light camera program have insisted that roadway safety is the sole motivation for the initiative that has generated more than $55 million in revenue since 2005.
It’s not about the money, they say.
But with the recent installation of new cameras at three Northeast intersections — raising the citywide total to 24 — as well as the release of the Philadelphia Parking Authority’s latest annual red-light camera report, one financial reality has become clear: The program must keep growing if it’s to remain self-sufficient.
Accordingly, the PPA’s intent is “to grow [the program] where needed” indefinitely, said Vince Fenerty, executive director of the PPA, the state-controlled non-profit agency that administers the program.
That plan hit a speed bump in the PPA’s fiscal year 2012, which ended last March 31. Annual revenues and profits declined for the first time in the program’s seven-year history. Total revenue was about $10.1 million, down from the previous year’s $13.7 million.
A decline in net income was even more dramatic, from $7.6 million in fiscal 2011 to just $2.9 million in 2012. Under state law, all net profits from the program pay for intersection-improvement projects throughout the state.
“The whole program still pays for itself overall and we believe it will continue to be that way for a very long time,” said Fenerty, who cited two primary reasons for the financial swoon.
The PPA brought only two new intersections online in fiscal 2012, both near the end of the 12-month period, thereby minimizing their impact on the annual accounting. Meanwhile, the volume of violations and fines issued at the program’s 19 pre-existing intersections declined in keeping with a statistical pattern observed since the installation of the city’s first red-light cameras.
“When revenue dropped, it was partly because people weren’t running red lights as much [at camera intersections] and because the new intersections didn’t come online,” Fenerty said.
Officially, the program is called Automated Red Light Enforcement (ARLE). It has a simple premise.
The PPA contractor rigs cameras at selected intersections to photograph motorists who run red lights. Violators are fined $100 for each offense.
Sensors trigger the cameras, which require no on-site police presence, although police must review the photos and sign off on all violations issued. The cameras focus on license plates and do not photograph vehicle occupants. So, when violations occur, registered vehicle owners get the tickets, regardless of who was driving.
Violators are subject only to fines and no other sanctions such as points on their drivers’ licenses.
Based on the program’s declared revenues since 2005, authorities have issued more than 550,000 tickets, although there was about $10 million in unpaid tickets as of March 31.
Northeast Philadelphia was Ground Zero for the introduction of the red-light camera program in 2005 and has become the focal point once again with the recent inclusion of three local intersections. Among the 24 active ARLE intersections, 11 are in the Northeast. Seven of those are along Roosevelt Boulevard, the 12-lane, surface-level U.S. highway reputed to be one of the nation’s most dangerous roads.
Last month, the PPA turned on cameras at Bustleton Avenue and Byberry Road, Grant Avenue and Academy Road, and Knights and Woodhaven roads. In accordance with the program’s standard 60-day grace period for newly installed cameras, violators at those locations will receive warnings in the mail instead of fines until Dec. 19, when full enforcement will begin, Fenerty said.
Meanwhile, violations and fines continue to pile up at the 21 other intersections, as do the program’s costs.
American Traffic Solutions (ATS) of Tempe, Ariz., is the PPA’s primary red-light contractor. In fiscal 2012, the PPA paid ATS about $4.6 million, 46 percent of the program’s gross revenue.
ATS supplies, installs and maintains the cameras, collects the digital images and data, provides technical support and processes citations issued to violators.
Under the terms of the contract, PPS pays ATS $4,495 per camera per month. There were 96 cameras in use at the 21 intersections documented on the fiscal 2012 report. One intersection had just two cameras, while others utilized as many as six to cover multiple lanes of traffic and directions of travel.
Next February, the per-camera fee will drop to $4,445. It will drop by another $50 in February 2014. The current contract will expire in February 2015. According to Fenerty, ATS won the initial contract in a competitive bidding process. Known as Mulvihill at the time, the company beat one other bidder.
“They responded to an RFP. They had the lowest proposal and the best product,” Fenerty said.
ATS has been very active politically, contributing more than $405,000 into the campaigns of state and federal candidates since 2006. Yet, the firm has made no direct corporate contributions to Pennsylvania legislators in Harrisburg or to municipal elected officials in Philadelphia, according to Fenerty.
However, ATS has hired two Pennsylvania-based lobbyists in recent years: David Caliguiri (2011) and Sean M. Reilly (2003-04, 2007-10).
During those years, Pennsylvania’s General Assembly passed legislation that created Philadelphia’s red-light camera program and granted the PPA authority over it. The PPA also retains a lobbyist in Harrisburg, Fenerty said, although no lobbying activities figure into the red-light camera program’s accounting reports.
Fenerty, who also is Republican leader of Philadelphia’s 31st Ward, serves as PPA’s executive director at the direction of the agency’s board, the majority of which is appointed by Pennsylvania’s governor.
Northeast native Joseph T. Ashdale, District Council 21’s political director, chairs the board. Al Taubenberger, the president of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, is a member.
The PPA and ATS have a connection outside the context of their contract. Both are clients of the Center City-based public relations agency, Ceisler Media, as is the National Coalition for Safer Roads, a non-profit highway safety advocacy organization that receives funding from ATS.
Ceisler Media principal Larry Ceisler explained that his firm represents the PPA as its liaison with Philadelphia-based news media, while the firm serves ATS as its liaison with news organizations elsewhere in Pennsylvania.
Early this year, Pennsylvania lawmakers passed legislation to enable municipalities outside Philadelphia to implement their own red light camera programs for the first time. All 12 eligible communities are in the Greater Philadelphia region, including eight in Montgomery County, three in Bucks County and one in Delaware County.
None of those communities have installed cameras yet. The PPA would not be involved in any of those programs. ••
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org