With N.J. red light cameras about to go dark, fight to restart them begins in Newark

By Matt Friedman | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on December 02, 2014

TRENTON — With New Jersey’s 73 red light cameras set to go dark in just two weeks, the mayor of the cash-strapped city of Newark and a group of lawmakers who represent it are planning a fight to resurrect them.

State Assemblyman Ralph Caputo and Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (both D-Essex) said they and other lawmakers plan to meet with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka on Friday to discuss the cameras, which provide millions in revenue to Newark, and will soon introduce a bill to renew it.

“The plan is to introduce a bill that would basically give municipalities an option of reinstating the red light camera program in their municipalities,” Spencer said. “It’s nothing mandatory. It would be totally permissive.”

Newark, which faces a major budget crunch, has 19 of the state’s 73 red light cameras — by far the most of any New Jersey municipality.

“I believe the (Baraka) administration there is interested in seeing it reactivated,” Caputo said. “At this point, unless I hear something that very drastically changes my mind, I would be very supportive, because it’s important in the city.”

A spokesman for Baraka said that the mayor would hold a press conference on the issue on Friday.

New Jersey’s red light cameras operate under a five-year-old pilot program that expires on Dec. 16. Spencer said her bill to renew it would not have an expiration date.

The state Department of Transportation has in annual reports said the program led to fewer collisions. But its findings have been challenged by critics like Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) — who pointed to what he said were faults in the methodology.

Critics have also bashed the cameras over short yellow light timing and the fact that a computer glitch forced towns to throw out 17,000 fines issued from the cameras because drivers never received the tickets in the mail.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), who sponsored the original red light camera program, said while it’s theoretically possible to continue it without interruption, it's not going to happen.

“You could have both houses vote for the extension and get it on the governor’s desk and he does a backflip and signs it,” Wisniewski said, adding that he hasn’t decided whether to co-sponsor the legislation. “Is it in theory possible? Yes. Is it practically going to happen? No.”

Nevertheless, red light camera companies have continued an intense public advertising and lobbying effort to save the cameras.

Charles Territo, a spokesman for American Traffic Solutions — one of two companies that operates the cameras in New Jersey — said that the New Jersey Department of Transportation is still due to issue two reports on red light camera safety.

“We expect those reports to be as, if not more, compelling than the previous years’ reports,” Territo said. “And the hope is that with those reports comes a recommendation that the program be continued based on the overwhelming evidence that the cameras have enhanced safety in New Jersey.”

The most recent report, released in March, found the 22 intersections that had active red light cameras for two full years as of Dec. 2012 saw a 27 percent reduction in accidents.

O’Scanlon, however, said Department of Transportation studies were flawed because control intersections without the cameras also had reductions in accidents. Red light camera supporters said this is because of a “halo effect” in which the cameras have caused drivers to be more safe everywhere.

O’Scanlon — who has his own competing bill that would bar the state from allowing red light cameras in the future (A1132) — said he’s not surprised that the impetus to re-start the program is coming out of Newark.

“There’s a lot of cameras stealing a lot of money from a lot of people passing through Newark,” O’Scanlon said. “It’s a disaster if you look at the facts. If you’re only interested in figuring out a way to continue to steal from people, then OK, your motivation is something other than in the best interests of the public.”

O’Scanlon said that even if the Department of Transportation studies are taken at their word for safety improvements, drivers are spending far more on tickets than they’re saving by avoiding accidents.

“The cost to motorists is a huge net negative if you factor in the costs of the fines. It is a horrific deal for motorists. And there is no safety benefit,” he said.

Spencer acknowledged that revenue is a factor in seeking to renew the program, but said safety is the first priority.

“It actually has been successful in Newark. It has been successful in a reduction in rear-end accidents and right-turn accidents,” she said, adding that the people who have received tickets “overwhelmingly don’t live in the city.”

Spencer didn’t know exactly how much revenue it generated for the city, but estimated it at $5 million to $10 million. That’s a small part of the city’s $800 million budget, but it’s significant considering the city is facing a major financial crunch.

Cameras, Spencer said, allow the city to allocate police resources that might be put towards traffic enforcement to places they’re more needed.

“I understand the objections that Assemblyman O’Scanlon has raised. In smaller towns, it may be received differently,” Spencer said. “But in a large city like Newark that often has a set of officers dedicated to traffic enforcement during high traffic times in the city, this helps us not put those officers there. It allows us to put officers in areas of the city that need more policing.”

It's not clear whether the Newark delegation stands a good chance of renewing the program. Gov. Chris Christie in August said he was leaning against it.

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