Sugar Land officials react to Texas Legislature's red-light camera ban

Image description
Texas Legislature stops red-light cameras with HB 1631
Image description
Texas Legislature stops red-light cameras with HB 1631
Image description
Texas Legislature stops red-light cameras with HB 1631

By now, drivers in Sugar Land may have noticed red-light cameras and signage have been removed from six busy intersections within the city.


With the passage of House Bill 1631 during Texas’ 86th regular legislative session, red-light cameras were banned in the state June 1, and all red-light cameras in Sugar Land were turned off June 2.


“We used these cameras as a tool to help us out,” Sugar Land Police Chief Eric Robins said. “When we had the cameras, we were hoping to get a lot more compliance and people not running those red lights and not having those accidents.”


Robins said he anticipates needing more staff over the next couple of years to make up for the loss of the cameras.


In 2008, Sugar Land received about $280,000 in revenue through the red-light camera program. In 2018, the city received $966,617 from the program, and by June 30 of this year, the city had received a little over $590,000, according to city data.


“That was set aside to pay for other traffic safety programs,” Robins said.


Money matters


Before HB 1631 was passed, when a driver ran a traffic signal equipped with a red-light camera, the vehicle owner whose name was associated with the car’s license plate number would have been mailed a notice of a $75 fine. Of this $75, $37.50 went to the state of Texas into the trauma fund for hospitals, Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman said during a June 18 City Council meeting.


“[The state] now has to make up that shortfall in revenue,” Zimmerman said.


The city retained the remaining $37.50. Throughout the 11-year duration of the program, the city received a total of $6.1 million. Each year, the net share of revenue produced by red-light cameras accounted for about 1% of the city’s general fund operating budget, Robins said.


“I’ve received a lot of emails about some people accusing us of using this as a revenue source, which is laughable,” Zimmerman said.


State Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, who co-authored HB 1631, said he supports the ban because it would prevent cities from being incentivized to issue tickets to increase revenues. Reynolds added it was difficult to enforce ticket payment.


“Studies also showed that red-light cameras do not necessarily end the practice of running red lights, as individuals still run them and then never pay the ticket,” he said. “Since there is not a strong payment enforcement system, the cameras do not have the desired deterrent effect.”


Roughly 23% of violations issued in Sugar Land throughout the program’s duration remained unpaid as of June 1. Under HB 1631, outstanding violation fees are no longer being collected, Robins said. In fact, any payments that were in the pipeline but had not been processed will be returned, Robins said.


In response to getting rid of the red-light cameras, Robins requested funds for one additional traffic officer be added to the fiscal year 2019-20 budget that council will adopt in September.


There are about four hours of rush-hour traffic each day—two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening—during which increased patrolling would be needed, Robins said.


“Those are the critical times that I’m in need of some support,” he said. “That equates to about three officers, when you add up the amount of time. It’s either that or trying to have our officers work extra overtime, and that can become a little bit of a burden.”


Robins said he will monitor the effect of having one additional officer in FY 2019-20 and look at accident data to determine if more officers will be needed.


“It’s always been about safety,” he said. “The way the funds went, the city and the police department basically used the funds that we got from the system to pay for the system itself.”


Creating a safety net


City Manager Allen Bogard said he feels legislative actions such as this one are making cities less safe.


“This is not the first action that has been taken,” Bogard said. “Two or three years ago, City Council adopted [an ordinance] where individuals were going to be ticketed if they had a phone in their hands while driving. The ordinance that our city passed had to be removed because of the Texas Legislature. Here, we have another one.”


In 2017, the Legislature did pass a measure banning texting while driving.


Implementing the red-light cameras in Sugar Land in 2007 resulted in a 58% decrease in accidents between 2009-12, Robins said. In 2018, however, three spots monitored by cameras, including Hwy. 6 N at Hwy. 59 N, Hwy. 6 S at Hwy. 59 and Hwy. 90A West at Dairy Ashford Road, were among the top collision areas in the city with 29, 20 and 16 accidents, respectively.


Additionally, about 70% of violators did not live in Sugar Land, and nearly 90% of violators did not receive a second ticket, Robins said.


Sugar Land resident Atia Ibrahim said she received a violation notice from a red-light camera once, and she found the process to be easier and more understandable than being stopped by an officer on the road.


“It allowed me to see the picture,” Ibrahim said. “It’s actually a video showing me that I slowed down yet I didn’t stop. But when the police officer pulls you over, you just take their word for it.”


Ibrahim also said she felt safer knowing the cameras were there to review footage for red-light runs or accidents.


“I know the cameras were there for our safety. It’s not intrusion,” she said. “I don’t see cameras any different than having a police officer sitting there pointing a speeding gun at you to see how fast you’re going.”


However, in a Community Impact Newspaper poll on Nextdoor, 64% of 497 responders in the Sugar Land and Missouri City area voted in support of the ban.


“HB 1631 ends a harmful practice by prohibiting the use of red-light cameras, which deprive citizens of their due process rights,” Reynolds said in an email. “An individual is forced to face a camera, rather than an officer who was present at the scene, as their accuser and is presumed guilty until proven innocent.”


Reynolds also said he feels the loss of the cameras makes communities in Texas safer as studies have shown rear-end crashes increase with the red-light camera system.


“Rather than following the normal flow of traffic, drivers brake too quickly upon entering the intersection to avoid getting ticketed, leading to crashes,” he said.


However, in Sugar Land, an analysis of the red-light camera programs showed rear-end crash counts stayed low with an average of 12 per year between 2012-17.


Although the red-light cameras have been banned, and Sugar Land has complied, Robins said the city will continue to look at other ways technology could help the police department.


“We’re constantly looking at what’s out there and what can give us an edge to help keep our city safe,” he said.


Bogard said he hopes in future legislative sessions the city will be able to discuss these issues further.


“I hope that as time goes on, there’s going to be an opportunity for us to have more dialogue with the leadership in Austin and get them back on the team for helping local communities build safe communities because it’s not happening anymore,” Bogard said.

By Beth Marshall
Born and raised in Montgomery County, Beth Marshall graduated from The University of Texas at San Antonio in 2015 with a bachelor's degree in communication and a minor in business. Originally hired as a reporter for The Woodlands edition in 2016, she became editor of the Sugar Land/Missouri City edition in October 2017.


MOST RECENT

Four baseball teams, including the Sugar Land Skeeters, will compete in 56 games at Constellation Field this July and August. (Courtesy Sugar Land Skeeters)
Sugar Land Skeeters begin two-month summer league at Constellation Field on July 10

Four baseball teams, including the Sugar Land Skeeters, will compete in 56 games at Constellation Field this July and August.

Fort Bend County confirmed 111 new coronavirus cases and one death July 9. (Community Impact Staff)
With 111 new coronavirus cases July 9, Fort Bend County has seen 4,524 total cases since March

There are now more than eight cases of the coronavirus per every 1,000 Missouri City residents.

Effective July 9, hospitals in more than 100 counties across the state must now postpone elective surgeries unrelated to COVID-19. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
MAP: Governor expands restrictions on elective surgeries to more than 100 Texas counties

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott expanded the restrictions that initially required only hospitals in Bexar, Dallas, Harris, and Travis counties to postpone all non-medically necessary surgeries and procedures that are unrelated to COVID-19.

If Missouri City continues funding its Pavement Maintenance and Management Program at current levels, in five to six years most city streets will need to be reconstructed, according to the city's public works department. (Courtesy Fotolia)
'The current budget that we are spending is not adequate': Missouri City looks to invest more in street maintenance program

If Missouri City continues funding its Pavement Maintenance and Management Program at current levels, in five to six years most city streets will need to be reconstructed, according to the city's public works department.

In compliance with Gov. Greg Abbott's July 2 executive order, the University Interscholastic League is requiring the use of facial coverings when practical to do so for all summer activity participants, among other guidelines. (Graphic by Ronald Winters/Community Impact Newspaper)
UIL releases guidelines for conducting summer activities during COVID-19 pandemic

The University Interscholastic League released udpated guidelines for schools conducting summer activities such as sports training and marching band practices on July 8.

Craft Burger is one of 15 restaurants, catering companies and food trucks participating in this year's Black Restaurant Week. (Courtesy Craft Burger)
Houston's fifth annual Black Restaurant Week returns July 10-19

Participating patrons can play Black Restaurant Week Bingo and vote for their favorite participating eateries for a chance to win prizes such as restaurant gift cards, culinary treats and cash prizes.

There are 277 people being treated for confirmed or suspected cases of the coronavirus in Fort Bend County hospitals. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)
Fort Bend County hospitals see record number of coronavirus patients July 8

Fort Bend County Health & Human Services confirmed 67 new cases of the coronavirus and one additional death July 8.

Home sales were up across most pricing categories in Houston in June, with a 15.7% jump as compared to the same period last year. (Community Impact staff)
Despite COVID-19, year-over-year Houston-area home sales up nearly 16% in June

Home sales were up across most pricing categories in Houston in June, with a 15.7% jump as compared to the same period last year.

Sugar Land City Council has been closely monitoring the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on city finances. (Courtesy Fotolia)
Sugar Land takes steps to maximize flexibility for budget season during coronavirus pandemic

The city of Sugar Land will have additional flexibility when planning for its fiscal year 2020-21 budget due to the unanimous passage of a resolution during the July 7 City Council meeting.

Steve Bezner, senior pastor of Houston Northwest Church on Hwy. 249, is one of four pastors who are urging pastors across the region to work together in seeking unity. (Anna Lotz/Community Impact Newspaper)
4 Houston-area pastors take steps urging racial unity across region

"We wanted to unite as many pastors as possible around some basic common denominators that we felt like could make a real impact in our city and move some things forward in the area of racial injustice in our city," said Jason Shepperd, the lead pastor of Church Project in The Woodlands.

The Texas Education Agency released guidelines about on-campus activities, attendance requirements, and health and safety precautions for the 2020-21 school year. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Texas Education Agency issues guidelines for 2020-21 school year

The guidelines address on-campus activities, attendance requirements, and health and safety precautions that should be enforced at Texas schools this year.