Traffic light camera experiment to expand in New York

Traffic light cameras that increase the number of tickets - and fines - are likely to be added soon to Long Island, Yonkers, Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester, and will get an extended trial in New York City.

New York's Senate is expected to approve an expansion of the pilot program this week, a move that already has support in the Assembly. That could mean cameras that take pictures of cars and their license plates as they zip through red lights could be coming to an intersection near you.

Critics, including several at a March hearing in Buffalo, say the pilot program is not about safety, but about increasing revenue from fines.

A bill expected soon to be voted into law will allow 50 cameras to be placed in each locality. The program was delayed last year when Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman David Gantt, a Rochester Democrat, opposed the expansion.

But the roadblock disappeared after Gantt's former counsel was hired as a lobbyist by one of the companies that makes the traffic cameras - a company owned by the wife of a state senator, according to reports in The Buffalo News.

The program has been in place for two years in New York City at 50 intersections where it is used mainly to avoid "blocking the box," - when a car enters an intersection late and blocks traffic when the light changes - said Austin Shafran, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith of Queens.

Shafran insisted on Monday, however, that the cameras outside New York are aimed at traffic safety, not boosting local revenues from fines. The law would be effective through December, but could be extended by the local government and eventually expanded in the state.

In the Buffalo hearing on the issue, resident Tom Ragan called it "a money grab," saying city residents don't like to be lied to. But others argued there is a need to improve safety at intersections where cars regularly try to race through as the light turns red.

The largest company selling the traffic cameras is Redflex Traffic Systems of Scottsdale, which operates in 22 states and added 79 cities last year. It signed a $32 million maintenance contract with Chicago last fall. Depending on the local contract, a company can keep as much as half the money collected in fines.

Redflex had a $10.6 million profit in 2008, up from $7.3 million the year before.

In 55,000-population St. Peters, Mo., 3,203 tickets were issues from January 2007 to September 2008 thanks to the cameras. Fines from those tickets totaled $235,973.

In Albany, separate bills for each locality are expected to reach the Senate floor for a vote this week. An identical measure is winding through committees in the Assembly, where Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker, is prime sponsor. Passage is expected.