Red-Light Cameras, Red-Hot Debate

Last week some Democratic office-holders including the maor of New Haven, re-launched the annual and so-far-unsuccessful legislative push to legalize red-light enforcement cameras in Connecticut.

That sparked now-familiar arguments pro (saving lives, preventing millions in unnecessary damage costs, and freeing police to fight serious crime) and con (worries about Big Brother, lack of due process, and the claim that cameras are less about safety than grabbing government revenue through fines).

But the upcoming political drama will have at least three elements not present last year.

One is the vocal support of Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who called the cameras a "highly appropriate" technology for fighting "bad behavior." He wasn't as out-front for the cameras in his inaugural year of 2011, saying only that he'd be inclined to sign such legislation if it passed, after having supporting the idea in his years as Stamford mayor.

Second is that 2012 is an election year for all 151 members of the state House of Representatives and 36 state senators — and politically sensitive questions have been known to trigger the self-preservation instinct of officials seeking re-election.

Third is a national political context of continuing anti-camera sentiment. About a half-dozen states, including nearby New Hampshire and Maine, have outlawed red light cameras. Also, voters around the country have almost invariably rejected camera-based traffic enforcement programs in about 20 referendums in recent years.

The most prominent example arose in Houston, where the cameras were turned off in late 2011 after 52 percent of voters opposed them in a November 2010 referendum, which was forced by a citizen activists' petition effort. Now there's a lingering court fight over millions of dollars claimed by the program vendor, Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions, or ATS, under the remaining years of its contract.

ATS is the same company that spent $84,000 for lobbying in Connecticut during 2011, according to a recent report filed with the Office of State Ethics. Another camera vendor, Australian-based Redflex, which operates in Arizona as well, spent $42,000, according to its lobbying report, filed Friday.

That puts the price tag of last year's unsuccessful camera enforcement lobbying campaign at $126,000.

On the other side, the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut paid more than $52,000 to a lobbying firm to be its advocate on various issues last year, including the successful effort to kill the red-light camera bill. Also, Michael Riley, president of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut — representing truckers — has lobbied against the bill as part of his paid, in-house job and is already contacting lawmakers about it now.

More of the same is expected from both sides this year.

ATS's vice president for communications, Charles Territo, said in a phone interview that he's "not sure" how much his company will spend on lobbying in Connecticut in 2012.

But he did say that "we recognize the importance of having an opportunity to educate members of the legislature about the benefits of the cameras. There is a great deal of misinformation about red-light safety cameras, and it's our goal to make sure that the facts are shared with lawmakers and opinion-makers."

Territo said the cameras "are designed and deployed to change driver behavior … and they work."

The Texas Fight

Whether or not the Connecticut battle rises to the level of Houston's, it's worth looking south to see how polarizing an issue it can be.

Things were so wild down there that a story about it in the weekly alternative newspaper, Houston Press, was headlined "The Red-Light Camera Circus," with this subhead: "Step right up, folks: Passion, deceit, money, lots of money, double dealing and a mayor with more flip-flops in her than a Cirque du Soleil acrobat!"

Months after the November 2010 referendum, Houston Mayor Annise Parker turned the red-light cameras off in mid-2011. Then she turned them back on, in the face of legal pressure — but they went off for good as the November election approached, as council members voted, with only one dissenter, to shut them down. Parker was re-elected.

The leaders of the citizen effort against the cameras included two brothers, Paul Kubosh, a lawyer who defends accused traffic violators, and Michael Kubosh, a bail bondsman.

"We're tenacious," Michael Kubosh said on the phone last week. "We want people to get the message: Every time there's been a vote or referendum, the red light cameras fail. Citizens don't want them. The elected officials are lobbied by the red light camera companies. This all about revenue gathering, not saving lives. … They say that red-light runners cause the fatalities, but do you know the real cause? … Drunk drivers are the cause. They just kill you anywhere; you don't have to be at an intersection."

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