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Traffic cameras

Traffic cameras in Oak Ridge — again

signschool One of the thorniest issues that City Council faced in my 5+ years is back. On Monday, Council decides whether to renew the contract with Redflex (possibly in new form), whether to cancel it, and (with or without cameras) whether to ask the state to let the city install a pedestrian-crossing stoplight in front of Oak Ridge High School (instead of continuing existing safety measures like crossing guards and traffic cameras — and to be paid for with traffic camera revenue).

It’s my impression that the majority of Oak Ridgers support the traffic cameras for their positive impact on traffic safety (something that can’t be proven from the available accident statistics, mostly because we don’t have enough accidents to make statistically significant comparisons). Back in 2008, I voted for the city ordinance that allows the use of traffic cameras in Oak Ridge. However, I voted against the contract with Redflex, largely because the plan to use cameras seemed to be more about cameras than about achieving safety goals — it wasn’t connected to engineering analysis or a program of alternative (non-enforcement) methods for improving driver behavior (such as better signs and traffic calming).  Now the city has a chance to re-evaluate the program and improve it for the future.

What should Council vote to do now?

Stop operating some cameras as “speed traps.” The biggest thing I learned from the camera data recently shared with Council and the public (finally, after nearly 5 years of camera operation and many requests) is that there is a solid factual basis for the complaints that I received as a Council member (mostly from out-of-towners) who claimed Oak Ridge was running a speed trap. Redflex data show that about 1.4% of the vehicles passing through a camera-equipped school zone during school-speed-limit hours get tickets, on average. For westbound traffic passing the high school, that goes up to 2.1% (about 1 in every 50 vehicles), and for westbound traffic on Robertsville Road passing Willowbrook School, it’s a whopping 3.9% (about 1 in every 25 vehicles). Those are the kinds of violation rates that people associate with speed traps. Almost one-quarter of the camera tickets issued are for school-zone speeding — the camera operations that function like speed traps. When one person in 25 or one person in 50 is breaking the speed limit and getting ticketed, and this happens day in and day out, I think it says that the speed limit might be unreasonable — or the city needs to be trying other methods to promote safety. I don’t know if this means reducing the number of tickets by reducing the duration of school speed limits (I’ve talked to quite a few people whose camera tickets came when no children were present — for example, 2o minutes after school started) or upping the enforcement threshold (from 6 miles over to 10 miles over, for example), or if it means something like adding more flashing lights in school zones to remind drivers that children are present.

Add a pedestrian crossing light in front of the high school — thus eliminating or reducing the need for crossing guards, traffic cameras, and/or the school-zone speed limit. A pedestrian light is a feasible and affordable way to resolve the longstanding problem of kids crossing Oak Ridge Turnpike at that location — and it seems to me that a pedestrian light could eliminate the need for those other measures (after a phase-in period for people to get used to the new arrangements). I asked for this for several years (ever since city staff outlined a plan for it), and I was disappointed when city staff shelved the idea (largely because of national guidelines that said school speed zones and crossing guards are the preferred means for protecting school kids).  Council should support this now.

To be continued…

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Public-input session on use of traffic-camera revenue

Monday night, April 4, at 6:30 pm (corrected) the City will conduct a public meeting for input on the use of traffic camera revenue. The meeting is at the Civic Center social room. I’ll be there, and I will be interested to hear what residents have to say. I’ve already shared some of my views on this blog, but it’s time to say some more.

Council members have already heard from citizens with opinions on the use of this money. Many support the idea of traffic safety improvements, but I have also heard from people who want the City to use this money to pay down the city’s debt, as well as folks who support other specific expenditures.

Regarding the idea of paying down the debt, the idea is appealing. In effect, we’ve already done some of that. The first year’s revenues from the traffic cameras (that is, revenues for fiscal 2010) totaled about $950,000 and were applied to improving the city’s financial position by increasing cash reserves. This did not directly reduce the existing city debt, but it avoids some additional borrowing, provides a cushion against future emergencies, and helps the city maintain a good credit rating that reduces the cost of borrowing. There are good reasons not to use additional camera revenue to pay down city debt. First, I have learned that on most municipal debt obligations, it is not possible to prepay principal. (This has to do with the way the borrowing is structured.) Also, the amount of money generated by the traffic cameras (I expect that it will be about $600,000 this year) is unfortunately very small in comparison to the total city debt (at the end of fiscal 2010, this was about $107 million for schools and city government, plus about $61 million for electric/water/wastewater facilities) and even the city’s annual expenditure (over $7 million) for debt service. Finally,  interest rates on the debt are very low right now, so prepaying debt wouldn’t save us much in the way of future interest.

I think it is best to use this money to addresscity needs that might not otherwise be addressed — through projects that will have a noticeable positive impact on people’s lives and well-being. Furthermore, since Oak Ridge should not depend on the camera revenue being available forever (because it is possible that the cameras will be eliminated, and even if they are retained, it is expected that the level of violations will decrease), the money should be used for one-time purposes instead of continuing programs. And, as I discussed in my earlier blog comments, because the stated purpose of the cameras is safety, the first priority for use of this money should be safety improvements. (Some of my fellow Council members pledged to do this back when the camera contract was approved.)

Some residents have suggested building an overhead walkway to connect the high school and civic center. This would be a safety improvement that would address a long-time city need. City staff did recommend an overhead walkway due to several factors. Not only would it be extremely expensive (due in part to the requirement to provide either elevators or long wheelchair ramps on both ends), but experience elsewhere indicates that when there is a long stairway or ramp to get to a pedestrian overpass, people often decide to take their chances by jaywalking instead of using the overpass. Instead, staff has recommended installing a “pedestrian signal” (i.e., stoplight with walk light) at the crosswalk between Oak Ridge High School and the Oak Ridge Civic Center. This should be an effective (and cost-effective) way of achieving the desired results from the overhead walkway  — and I have a hunch that this stoplight could eliminate the need for the speed camera and crossing guards currently deployed at this location. As stated earlier, it’s my top priority for spending traffic camera money — and I think it would have a big positive impact on both our quality of life and newcomers’ perceptions of the city.

Other safety-related proposals I’ve heard from residents include adding more  school resource officers  and funding driver’s education at the high school. Neither of these ideas fits the test of being a one-time expenditure — once started, people would expect the funding to continue in the future (even if the camera money went away).

Besides the crossing at the high school, there are other traffic/pedestrian safety-related projects on the staff’s list that I believe address important city needs — and possibly could help ameliorate some of the situations that led to installation of the cameras:

  • Pedestrian safety improvements at the intersection of Oak Ridge Turnpike (SR 95) and Illinois Avenue (SR 62).
  • A northbound left-turn signal (traffic-activated) on Illinois Avenue at the intersection of Robertsville Road
  • A walk light and pedestrian crosswalk at the intersection of Oak Ridge Turnpike with Tyler and Administration Roads.

These projects likely would absorb this year’s camera money, which is the focus of the resolution that is currently up for Council consideration. Other initiatives a little bit farther down the staff priority list are also worthwhile, but I don’t necessarily agree with all of their priorities. Some additional initiatives that I think are particularly worth pursuing (or at least considering) are:

  • Create a physical barrier between traffic and the bike-ped trail where the Emory Valley Greenway is on the shoulder of Emory Valley Road. It’s not clear what arrangement will work best there, but something needs to be done to protect bicyclists from traffic — and to ensure that drivers don’t have to swerve to avoid young bicyclists who veer into the traffic lane.
  • Add a walk light and pedestrian signal at the intersection of Oak Ridge Turnpike with New York Avenue and Lafayette Drive. There are plenty of good reasons for people to try to walk across the Turnpike there (walking to work or walking from a workplace to a lunch spot, for example), but there is no way for pedestrians to request that the light change to red on the Turnpike to allow crossing (not a problem when traffic is heavy, but a real issue at some hours), and it’s not clear that the red light duration is adequate for pedestrians to cross.
  • Create a protected pedestrian crossing of Melton Lake Drive near Emory Valley Road, where the Emory Valley Greenway crosses. This is a high-volume crossing point where a safer crossing would have a positive impact on residents and visitors. However, there is a vision for a roundabout there, and I would want to know that a new pedestrian crossing should be able to remain after the roundabout is installed.
  • Install “humped” crosswalks at locations on local streets, particularly in residential neighborhoods and near schools, where there is an identified need to get traffic to slow down. I can think of a few candidate spots in Woodland and and on Outer and West Outer Drives.
  • Acquire new reflective street signage that federal regulations will require cities to install over the next few years. The increased reflectivity of the new signs will enhance safety, and using traffic camera money for the signs would save money that otherwise would  come from property taxes — or additional city debt.

Those are relatively small projects. Some big-ticket items that I think we should consider in the future are:

  • Two roundabouts: One at the Melton Lake Drive and Emory Valley Road intersection and another at “Malfunction Junction” where Pennsylvania, Providence, North Tulane, and East Pasadena come together.
  • “Intelligent transportation systems” controls for stoplights on Illinois Avenue (and possibly later on Oak Ridge Turnpike) to ensure smoother traffic  flow. This would have several types of benefits. It’s easy to see how residents and visitors would appreciate improved traffic flow through town  — as would local businesses that may lose prospective customers who stay away to avoid being delayed by frequent stoplights.  I also see it as a safety measure — because a smoother passage through the stoplights would reduce the driver frustration that can tempt drivers to speed or run red lights. Finally, reducing stop-and-go driving would have environmental benefits by reducing emissions of tailpipe pollutants and greenhouse gases.

It will be helpful for staff and City Council to hear from residents and business owners (Monday night and at other times) about these and other possible priorities — plus other ideas that people might have.

If the cameras are around for more than a couple of years, and if people continue to get ticketed for speeding and  running red lights, there likely will be an opportunity to consider other uses for the revenue (and the suggestions I’ve heard range from preschool to senior center, plus all life stages in between), but for now I see opportunities for traffic-safety enhancements that I think will noticeably improve the quality of life in Oak Ridge for many years to come.

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How not to communicate your views to a public official

Although I didn’t vote for the city’s Redflex contract that led to the installation of traffic cameras, one of these days the nastiness contained in the letters that City Council members receive regarding the cameras might just inspire me to head out on the streets carrying a sign in support of those cameras.  Insulting remarks may win fans for certain stand-up comedians, but my experience tells me that insults do not win the hearts of city council members.

This rant is inspired by today’s entry in the “how not to communicate to a public official” category. The sender of today’s e-mail message used his name (it’s a common name — I guesstimate that hundreds of  Tennesseans share his name) but gave no address (few of the ultra-nasty correspondents do — presumably because they don’t live in Oak Ridge). He did use a valid e-mail address, from which I found out where he lives (about 2 hours from Oak Ridge), where he works (he has a professional job — in a local governmental agency, even), and that he has a good-looking family.

He might be a nice guy, but his message is anything but nice:

Taking down camera signs: Despicable

I hope one day you all go to jail. The cameras infringe on my constitutional rights and now you are infringing on our right of free speech. Have you ever even read the constitution? How you can take an oath and then violate it, is beyond the pale. SAY IT LOUD AND SAY IT PROUD OAK RIDGE SUCKS! You are nothing more than a money grubbing assholes. Your time is almost up, good luck finding another job.

I don’t have any idea what he’s talking about regarding “taking down signs,” but his message doesn’t inspire me to want to find out — and it sure wouldn’t inspire me to change a vote!

There’s much discussion these days about the need for civility in public discourse. Civility is a good thing — not only because it may help “keep the peace”, but because uncivil communication is ineffective communication.

Followup: Aha! Here’s the story behind the message, from the Knoxville News Sentinel website:
Anti-traffic camera activists wage sign wars with Oak Ridge officials

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Use traffic enforcement camera money for one-time traffic-safety-related improvements

Taxi crossing elevated pedestrian crosswalk

"Humped-zebra"-type crossing in Sydney, Australia.

Knoxville News Sentinel reporter Bob Fowler asked Oak Ridge City Council members for our views on use of the revenue from those controversial cameras that enforce speed limits and red-light compliance. His article on the answers that he got from five of us is in Friday’s paper. My full answer didn’t make it into the article, but I can provide it here:

City Council has never budgeted for this revenue, although some individual Council members have made public statements about its use that some residents now interpret as having been promises from the full Council.

I have told city staff that I think this money should be placed in a special revenue fund so that its expenditure can be tracked separately from the General Fund.  I want the money to be used for one-time improvements that will have long-term benefits for the safety of motorists and pedestrians in the city. It should not be used for recurring expenses because the city shouldn’t count on having this revenue forever, and it should be used for traffic safety because traffic safety is the stated purpose of the cameras.

Some possible uses are traffic-calming measures such as roundabouts and “humped zebra crossings” (that’s a British term for striped pedestrian crosswalks that are elevated above the road surface for greater visibility and to slow traffic), new walk light signals, additional signs to alert drivers to the speed limit, and more stop signs to slow down the drivers who speed through residential neighborhoods on streets like Outer Drive. Also, there is a federal mandate requiring cities to upgrade the reflectorization on all street signs and pavement markings within the next few years — I think that would be an appropriate use for traffic camera money.

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Red-light cameras: warning periods are ending and real tickets are on the way

According to a press release from the City, the 30-day warning period for the City’s first traffic safety camera has ended. This is the camera that monitors southbound traffic on Illinois Avenue at the intersection of Illinois Avenue and Robertsville Road. It monitors red light and speed violations. Violations “caught” by this camera will now lead to $50 tickets.

A second traffic safety camera at the same location that monitors northbound traffic is in a warning period until June 6, 2009.

The two traffic safety cameras that monitor east- and westbound traffic on Oak Ridge Turnpike at LaFayette Drive, including speeding and red light violations and illegal turns, are still in the warning period. The westbound camera is in a warning period until June 8, 2009, and the eastbound camera’s warning period ends June 18, 2009.

In addition to the two intersections with traffic safety cameras, fixed speed systems are being constructed in Oak Ridge school zones on Robertsville Road at Willowbrook School and on Oak Ridge Turnpike at Oak Ridge High School. Both systems will monitor the speed of passing vehicles 24 hours a day, including school zone times. Neither system is operational yet and each will have a separate thirty-day warning period.

As of May 28, 2009, the City had printed 2,322 notices of violations for the locations with traffic safety cameras. These notices will be mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle committing the violation. Notices received require no action by the recipient during the warning period.

The red-light cameras only detect a violation if a vehicle crosses the stop bar after the traffic signal turns to red — if you are already in the intersection when the light changes from yellow to red, you are not in violation.

I did vote against the camera contract last year, but as a city official I figure I need to do my part to keep people informed and to ensure that the system operates fairly — and I do hope it contributes to public safety!

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Traffic cameras are coming online

E-mail from the city manager indicates that the Redflex traffic enforcement cameras are installed and being tested.  It looks like they will be ready to start issuing warnings some time later this week (the $50 penalties won’t come until after about a month of warnings-only operation).  Cameras at the Illinois-Robertsville and Turnpike-Lafayette intersections will monitor both red-light  compliance and speed, while the cameras on Robertsville Road near Willowbrook Elementary School and on Oak Ridge Turnpike next to Oak Ridge High School will just monitor speed.

Update on Tuesday, April 28 – Information we received today suggests that they won’t start issuing warnings until the week of May 11th.

Update on Saturday, May 2 – Information sent yesterday indicates that the red-light cameras are now running — for testing and for issuing warnings.  (It looks like I was right the first time.)

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Traffic camera pranksters in our future?

Oak Ridge’s traffic camera program hasn’t started yet, but it’s never too soon to be forewarned about things that can go wrong with camera-based traffic enforcement. It seems (based on this article) that teenagers in Montgomery County, Maryland, are playing some elaborate pranks with speed-enforcement cameras. First they use a computer and printer to create a fake license plate bearing their chosen victim’s license tag number, then they attach the fake plate to their own car and drive at high speed past the speed-enforcement camera. A few days later, the hapless victim gets a ticket in the mail, and has the challenge of proving that the speeding vehicle wasn’t their car.

I figure that this one can’t go on for very long before the pranksters get caught — “the jig is up” as soon as one of the victims recognizes the vehicle photographed with their tag number. But forewarned is forearmed.

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Can’t escape news about traffic cameras

It seems you can’t open a newspaper or turn on a TV without hearing about traffic enforcement cameras. I’m still scratching my head over the news that Knoxville is terminating its contract with RedFlex due to late delivery of the company’s bid on a contract renewal.

Meanwhile, WBIR-TV has a report that the Oak Ridge police and RedFlex are studying intersections and streets before deciding where to install red-light and speed cameras. I’m disappointed, but I’m not surprised — instead of identifying traffic safety problems and seeking the best methods to solve those problems, the city has selected a high-tech solution and is now seeking a problem to apply it to. Now that the majority of my fellow Council members have decided that we will have cameras, we all must hope they will be beneficial for public safety, but I do wish we had a clearer idea what problem we want them to fix.

Update Sept. 29: In response to those of you who have asked, I have no specific news on when cameras will appear on our streets. However, I realize that I failed to document one important piece of news. Earlier this summer, City staff had our signalized intersections evaluated by a traffic engineer to determine whether they had the appropriate yellow-light durations. As a results, most of the intersections that were evaluated had their yellow-light timing adjusted in at least one direction to increase the yellow duration. With or without cameras, I hope this makes it easier for all of us to avoid running through intersections as the lights change from yellow to red.

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Consideration of red-light camera contract delayed to August

If you were hoping the red-light camera issue would be resolved soon (one way or the other) so that other public concerns could get attention, you will need to wait another month. City staff does not have a proposed contract ready for City Council consideration this month, so the next vote on the subject is now expected to happen at the August 18, 2008, City Council meeting.

UPDATE: The vote is in. City Council voted 4 to 3 to authorize a contract with RedFlex. In favor of the camera contract were Mayor Tom Beehan, Mayor Pro-Tem Jane Miller, Tom Hayes, and Charlie Hensley. Opposed were Willie Golden, Dave Mosby, and Ellen Smith (that’s me).

The contract will be for 5 years (with optional renewal periods) and it authorizes up to 15 camera installations for speed and/or red-light enforcement. There will be signs to inform motorists that photo enforcement is in use, and at each location there will be a 30-day “warning” period during which violators will get warning tickets (but no fines).Staff wants to start slow with 3 camera locations targeting school zones.

It goes without saying that his was not an easy decision, and the community expressed strong passions on both sides of the issue.

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Upcoming meetings on camera-based traffic enforcement

Two public meetings are coming up on the topic of camera-based traffic enforcement.

The first is this Thursday, May 15, 2008 — a “Citizen’s Red Light Camera Informational Meeting” sponsored by the “Tennessee Liberty Alliance” (additional website), at 7 pm, at the Midtown Community Center (Wildcat Den) on the corner of Oak Ridge Turnpike and Robertsville Road. The Liberty Alliance is opposed to camera enforcement, and two local residents will present their arguments. Dr. Dale Gedcke (author of an opinion column on the subject in Sunday’s News Sentinel) will present technical arguments against the use of cameras and Ron Brown (who has sued the city regarding speed limits) will speak on legal arguments. Others will be given a chance to speak. Sponsors say they endorse “other methods to achieve this goal of safety more effectively, while at the same time, protecting the citizen’s rights guaranteed by our Constitution of the United States.”

The second is the Oak Ridge City Council work session on Monday, June 2, 2008, at 6:30 pm, at the Municipal Service Center on Woodbury Lane. Contrary to what some news media have reported, the Council has not yet given final approval to an camera-based enforcement program, but has enacted an ordinance that would authorize the use of this type of enforcement. At this meeting, I hope we will learn about the safety data the Police Dept. has collected on the subject and the proposals that have been received for a potential contract.

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