Red light cameras to stay in Encinitas - for now

Motorists in Encinitas will have to contend with red light cameras at two busy intersections along El Camino Real for at least another 18 months under a decision made Aug. 22 by the Encinitas City Council.

The decision to keep the red light camera program for now, but revisit the issue in a year, came on a 3-2 council vote, with members Tony Kranz and Mark Muir voting no. Those two council members favored signing a longer contract with the company that operates the cameras.

"I support the program and would like to keep it in place," said Kranz.

"It improves community safety and it's not subsidized," said Muir.

Kranz and Muir also argued that the city could get a better deal with Redflex, the company that operates the cameras, if it signs a longer-term contract.

However, Mayor Catherine Blakespear said she is concerned that fines meted out for red light violations — at $490 — are too high, and that accidents rates, which have declined at the intersections where the cameras are in place, appear to be going down around the entire city.

"My support for this program is actually waning," said Blakespear, noting that with the cost of traffic school, the total cost of a violation is more than $500. "It just really gets me. That is so excessive."

"Public safety is important, (but) I am not convinced the red light cameras are markedly contributing to that," she said.

In recent years, a number of San Diego County cities, including San Diego, Oceanside, Escondido and Vista, have discontinued their red light camera programs. Solana Beach and Del Mar's programs are still in place, according to a report on the council's agenda.

In Encinitas, the cameras are mounted at the intersections of El Camino Real and Encinitas Boulevard, and at El Camino Real and Olivenhain Road, although not all directions are monitored. The cameras have been in place at Encinitas Boulevard since 2004, and they were installed at Olivenhain Road the following year.

In the four-and-a-half years prior to the cameras being installed, there were 8.7 accidents per year at the Encinitas Boulevard intersection, compared to 4.8 accidents per year in the 12.5 years after the cameras were installed, according to the report. Accidents directly related to red light violations dropped from two per year to an average of .34 per year.

Similarly, total accidents and those caused by red light violations also went down at the Olivenhain Road intersection after the cameras were installed, said the report.

Another issue discussed by the council was the cost of the program. According to the staff report, since the program was launched, revenue collected from fines has offset the cost of operating the cameras.

The program generated $411,000 in revenue in fiscal year 2016-17, an amount that was expected to drop to $282,000 in fiscal year 2017-2018, although the report did not address the reason for the drop-off. The program costs about $227,000 per year to operate, a figure that was expected to decrease under a new contract, said the report, due to a reduction on the contract cost.

City staff noted that under state law, the contract cannot be based on the number of tickets issued, but rather must be a fixed price for operation of the cameras. The amount of the fine is set by the state.

The cameras monitor about one-million vehicles each month as they travel through the two intersections, said the report, and about a half percent are flagged for red light violations. After review, about one-third of those flagged violations result in tickets being issued, or about 325 to 350 tickets per month, said the report.

Analysis of the data also showed that over the past five years, about 80 percent of the tickets were issued to non-residents of the city, with the other 20 percent going to Encinitas residents, said the report.

When the issue comes back for consideration in a year, the council wants to see comparison data of accidents at intersections where the cameras are not in place, and also wants more information about why other local cities have discontinued their red light camera programs.

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