Members of the Menlo Park Transportation Commission saw red, then gasped as they watched video footage of drivers running red lights at intersections monitored by cameras. The footage was part of a presentation about the red-light camera program given during the July 10 commission meeting, held in advance of a council hearing next month that will decide whether or not to keep the cameras running.
Once the gasps faded, the commissioners took a hard look at the data. Menlo Park has four red-light cameras, mounted at Bayfront Expressway and Willow Road, and the intersections of El Camino Real with Glenwood Avenue and Ravenswood Avenue.
Statistics per intersection compiled by the police department attributable to running a red light showed zero accidents at El Camino Real and Glenwood Avenue, one at El Camino Real and Ravenswood Avenue, and six at Bayfront Expressway and Willow Road during the two years prior to installing the cameras in 2008.
Since the cameras were installed, data shows two to three accidents resulting from red-light violations at the Bayfront Expressway and Willow Road intersection, and none at the other locations.
"In all honesty, it doesn't seem like there's that many collisions at these intersections in general," Commissioner Penelope Huang noted.
David Carnahan, author of the staff presentation, pointed out that one collision equals lots of frustrated drivers backed up in a traffic jam at busy intersections and increased carbon emissions from idle cars. "Not astronomically large numbers," he said, referring to the collision rate, "but ideally each (accident) would be prevented."
Federal and state studies indicate that the cameras do tend to reduce the number of "T-bone" collisions at intersections, but may also slightly increase the number of rear-end collisions. Since, in general, rear-end collisions cause less expensive damage and injuries, according to staff, cameras therefore tend to lower the cost of accidents. The commissioners asked staff to collect data on accident types specifically for Menlo Park before presenting the analysis to the council.
If a red-light ticket is paid in full, without any decrease of penalties through appealing to the court, the driver pays $480. Menlo Park gets about $155; the rest goes to the county and state.
The program nets the city's general fund about $220,000 per year -- when all the cameras are running. Almost as an aside, staff noted that the Caltrans paving project that accidentally took out the signal synchronization along El Camino Real for months also left the cameras at the Glenwood and Ravenswood intersections non-operational from November to February, something the city left unannounced until the function was restored. In 2010, a collision temporarily shut down the Bayfront Expressway camera.
The outages didn't cost the city anything besides ticket revenue. Menlo Park's contract with Redflex, the Arizona-based company responsible for operating and maintaining the cameras, contains a "cost neutrality" clause that saves the city from paying the $5,000 to $6,000 monthly fee per camera if the revenue from the citations issued doesn't cover the cost.
In response to a question from commissioner Maurice Shiu, staff said they did not yet know how much the red-light camera program cost Menlo Park administratively.
Other local cities, such as Belmont, Redwood City, Hayward and San Carlos, have canceled their programs. During the transportation commission meeting, staff attributed Redwood City's decision to seeing a "dramatic decrease" in accidents that indicated "driver education" had taken place, so the resources could be better used now for other police initiatives. Hayward, on the other hand, opted to shut the program down because it was losing money, according to staff.
On Aug. 20 the City Council is scheduled to consider whether to renew the Redflex contract and if it should add a camera at the intersection of Bayfront Expressway and Chilco Street.