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What You Need To Know About The Red Light Camera Ban

Christopher Connelly

Red light cameras have been going dark across Texas this month. State lawmakers passed legislation to ban the automated cameras, which snap a picture of vehicle license plates when vehicles enter intersections after the traffic light turns red. The red light system then automatically mails a $75 ticket.

Gov. Greg Abbott was so happy to sign it earlier this month that he posted a video of himself making the bill law on June 1.

Though the ban went into effect as soon as it was signed, and the vast majority of cities began shuttering their red light camera operations. There is a bit of wiggle room* in the legislation that allows cities to continue their programs if they can't get out of their contract with red light camera operators, but only a few cities .

The new law eliminated the mechanism that made paying red light camera tickets matter to most people, and many cities have already shuttered collections operations for those tickets. Previously, the Department of Public Safety or county tax assessor-collectors could block vehicle registrations for people with unpaid red light camera tickets. That authority was removed under the new law.

While the ban was being debated, city officials from across Texas argued that red light cameras made drivers and pedestrians safer by reducing both the number of people running red lights, and the number of T-bone crashes in intersections. Those right-angle collisions cause the most serious injuries.

Critics of the cameras pointed to research showing most of the tickets went to people who’d just barely run red lights, and argued that the cameras even caused accidents when people slammed on the brakes to avoid getting a ticket from the automated cameras.

Tea Party conservatives have been particularly focused on red-light cameras, driving Arlington to ban the cameras in 2015 and arguing that, rather than improving public safety, the main job of the cameras was to drive revenues to city coffers.

"I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment," Bedford state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, who authored the ban, said on the House floor last month. "But the people of Texas have been waiting a longer time."

Since 2007, red light cameras generated more than $706 million statewide, according to the Texas Comptroller. Half of the net revenues from the cameras went to fund trauma care across the state, and lawmakers increased funding for the state trauma fund in the state budget for the next two years to make up for the expected lost revenue.

The other half of the money from red light cameras is split between cities and the red light camera operators. Fort Worth took in between $3-4 million dollars each year from red light cameras, which paid for traffic safety improvements like traffic signals. Dallas took in about $3 million each year.

As cities ready to write their budgets for the next year, the loss of red light camera revenue is causing headaches. At the same time the legislature banned red light cameras and eliminated this source of revenue, lawmakers also limited cities' ability to raise property taxes, making it harder to make up the difference.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story, and the corresponding audio, incorrectly stated that cities that had existing contracts with red-light camera operators could continue operating their red-light camera programs until the contract ran out. The law only allows cities to continue operations if their contract doesn't contain a clause specifying that the city can end the contract if the state bans the cameras. Most cities' contracts contained those clauses.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.