As program costs mount, officials question legality of cameras, deal with Redflex

Montgomery County Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack, sworn into office in January, is setting his sights on eliminating the photo-enforced intersections, or red light cameras, throughout The Woodlands. He said the program has proven to be a financial albatross for the county while the legality of the cameras has come into question.

The red light camera program was implemented in 2007 under then-commissioner Ed Chance when just two intersections, Woodloch Forest Drive at Woodlands Parkway and South Panther Creek Drive at Woodlands Parkway, began to be monitored. Since then, the program has grown to include cameras at 10 intersections throughout The Woodlands.

But as the program has expanded and the number of monitored intersections has increased, so have the costs.

"There has been a series of bad decisions that led up to the installation of these cameras and how they have operated ever since," Noack said. "I just want to cease operations of the red light cameras and work with our law enforcement."

Financial situation

Under the program agreement, the county pays Redflex Traffic Systems, which owns the cameras, a base amount each month for the operation of the cameras. Drivers who are ticketed for running a red light at a camera-controlled intersection must pay a $75 civil fine, which, Precinct 3 Constable Ryan Gable said, does not affect a driver's insurance or their driving record.

Any money left over after the payment to Redflex is split between the county and the state. Money the county receives, Noack said, must be allocated to traffic safety costs.

"In the six years these cameras have been in operation, only twice has there been a profit," Noack said. "To me, it's just another way of taxing our citizens."

According to Precinct 3 financial documents, the county has received $1.4 million over the term of the program, while paying out nearly $1.4 million to Redflex and $131,000 to the state.

Gable, who is in charge of reviewing video of possible violations, said the monetary value of the time he and his staff have allocated to reviewing 26,000 potential violations between August 2012 and March 2013 is about $42,000.

In addition to the financial strain, Gable said he believes it is a conflict that he determines whether a driver is issued a fine while he also serves as the judge during the review and appeal process.

"There is a conflict between me and my agency reviewing the red light camera videos and determining if someone should be held liable and guilty," he said.

Gable said if a violator does not pay their fine, Redflex and the county could impose a civil penalty. However, Gable said he was unaware of any case of a civil suit brought against a violator.

"I don't think it's ever happened," he said.

Gable also said it was possible a hold could be placed on a driver's record so that he or she would be unable to renew their car's registration until the violation was paid.

Although Gable was unsure if that component was still in place and being utilized.

Contract in question

On Feb. 4, County Attorney J.D. Lambright contacted Reflex, notifying the company of the county's intention to terminate the contract effective April 1. The letter to Reflex stated "the county's expenditures (both actual funds and in-kind) in operating the photo red light enforcement program continue to exceed the funding available for the photo red light enforcement program."

Two weeks later, Redflex responded with a letter to Lambright's office stating the county's claim was "ineffective." Then on March 28, Lambright sent notice to Redflex stating Texas law does not permit counties to enter into multi-year contracts, so the contract is and void.

"So, none of the cameras at these intersections are in compliance with the law," Noack said.

In a prepared statement, Redflex Director of Communications Jody Ryan said the company is interested in continuing its relationship with Montgomery County.

"Since 2007, Redflex Traffic Systems and Montgomery County have been working together to make roadways safer through the use of traffic safety cameras," Ryan said in the statement. "Studies show that traffic safety cameras modify driver behavior, and when implemented drivers slow down, stop on red, and roadways become safer. Redflex Traffic Systems is interested in meeting with the county to resolve outstanding concerns and find a collaborative approach to continue this valuable public safety program."

Officials also claim the cameras are not legal since the required traffic studies have not been completed and the proper roadway signage is not in place. Noack said signage alerting drivers of the presence of an upcoming red light camera, as well as a sign notifying them of a potential fine, must be located at the approach of each intersection.

"Some of these cameras have been installed without the proper studies," said Woodlands Township Director Mike Bass. "Some of the violations may not be totally enforceable."

In July of last year, the county turned off five of the cameras after it was determined the intersections that they monitored had not undergone the required traffic study. The county then refunded more than $135,000 in fines over the next two months. Shortly after, the traffic studies were completed and the cameras were turned back on.

Despite the county's efforts to terminate the contract, which was renewed by the commissioner's court in 2011 for six more years, the 10 red light cameras in Precinct 3 in The Woodlands were still operational at press time.

"We don't know why these intersections were selected," Noack said. "We don't want there to be a red light camera there just for the sake of generating revenue. These should, in theory, improve safety."

Safety issue

Noack said although the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office, the Montgomery County Constable's Office and the Texas Department of Traffic Safety all keep accident data, a report has not been compiled regarding the effectiveness of the cameras.

"There is no evidence that I have seen that shows our intersections are safer," he said.

A July 2010 report issued by the Texas Transportation Institute, titled "Effectiveness of Red Light Cameras," examined reports from about 20 cities and counties of different sizes and samples that have used red light cameras.

The TTI concluded that "if installed at locations with significant red light running crashes and/or violations, over a group of intersections, red light cameras substantially reduce red light violation rates and reduce crashes that result from red light running."

Noack said no reports exist that show crash data in The Woodlands before and after the red light cameras became operational.

Meanwhile, Bass expressed concern about removing cameras that may, in fact, be needed.

"If a traffic study says a particular intersection would benefit [from a red light camera], then maybe it needs one," he said. "I'm also concerned they would be removed just to reduce costs and leave someone with a public safety issue."

Noack said if the cameras are removed, the responsibility of monitoring the intersections would fall to law enforcement.

"We have law enforcement to depend on, and we will then at least be able to study these intersections and understand where we are having issues," he said.

The Woodlands Township pays the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office for its own district and additional police officers. Bass is concerned without red light cameras, the costs to the township could go up.

"Who is going to be responsible for the enforcement of the intersections?" Bass said. "It will fall back on the township and the sheriff's office we contract with. It may reduce [the county's] cost, but it may increase [the township's] cost."