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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Red Lights and Greenbacks

Posted By on Tue, Jan 15, 2008 at 11:49 AM

Somewhere in Arizona a CEO by the name of Jim Tuton is smiling.

In early 2006 I took a look at how St. Louis awarded Tuton’s American Traffic Solutions (ATS) with a multimillion-dollar contract to install red-light cameras in the city. My reporting revealed that Mayor Francis Slay’s office, at the behest of ATS lobbyist Joyce Aboussie, bent over backward to help ensure Tuton’s Scottsdale-based firm won the lucrative contract.


According to my findings, Slay’s attorneys tailored an ordinance in such a manner that it would eliminate nearly any other company that might compete for the camera contract. Later, the police department selected ATS without testing any of its products or assembling a selection committee before making its decision, as required by the ordinance.

As a result of my story, the city was forced to throw out its contract with ATS and rebid the cameras. Shortly thereafter Tuton faxed me a testy note, stating: “We are confident that we will once again be selected over all other vendors and that ATS will be awarded the contract based on the merits of our product and the value of our offering.”

Tuton was right, of course. ATS won the contract a second time, and today ATS cameras are installed at thirteen of the city’s “most dangerous” intersections, according to Mayor Slay’s chief of staff, Jeff Rainford.

Given the growing number of intersections equipped with the cameras, I was hardly surprised last month to receive my first red-light ticket courtesy of ATS. The camera allegedly caught me making an illegal right turn at the corner of Delmar and Skinker boulevards. A sign at the intersection clearly states “No Right Turn on Red,” but that’s not the ordinance I violated -- according to the ticket. The ticket states that I failed to come to a complete stop before turning right on red, and it includes photos of my car as proof of my misdeed.

The fine for the infraction is $100. I could either send the city a check for the money, or argue my case. I chose the latter, and yesterday I sent the city a letter enumerating why I believe that I – and others – should not be forced to pay tickets from red-light cameras.

For starters, I believe the city has installed cameras not at the “most dangerous” intersections, but at the corners where it assumes it will make the most money. Back when I first reported on red-light cameras, Jeff Rainford told me the cameras were necessary because of the tragic story of Eunice Felder. In 2004 the 82-year-old Felder was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the street at the corner of McCausland and Plateau avenues in Dogtown.

“That’s pretty much what started it,” said Rainford back in 2006. “After that accident, the mayor inquired about the camera technology, and we put it on the legislative agenda.”

Why then does the intersection of McCausland and Plateau not have a red-light camera? My guess is because that intersection gets far less traffic -- and fewer potential fines -- than busier streets around town.

Below is the list I sent to the city explaining two more reasons I believe I shouldn’t pay the fine. I’ll keep you posted as to how the city responds.

1. The City of St. Louis is employing red-light cameras solely as a means of increasing revenue and NOT for the stated goal of improving public safety. Until the city proves that it selected intersections for red-light cameras based on legitimate safety concerns (i.e., accident and police reports) and NOT based on the quantity of traffic, the city cannot justifiably ask motorists to pay fines for photos taken by red-light cameras.

2. There is no sign alerting drivers that the intersection of Skinker and Delmar boulevards is under red-light surveillance. Lawmakers in Jefferson City will soon consider legislation that will require municipalities to warn drivers if they are approaching an intersection that employs red-light cameras. Until that matter is resolved, the city cannot justifiably fine motorists for red-light photos taken at unmarked intersections.

3. After multiple attempts to download the video of my “violation” from the city’s Web site, I was unable to see a moving image of my alleged infraction. This requires the unreasonable burden of me traveling to city hall to view the film. Further, the photos of the alleged violation clearly show that my brake lights were engaged. I believe I came to a complete stop before turning right on red.

-Chad Garrison

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