By David Smiley
The days of wincing while driving through a Miami intersection on a yellow light will soon be over after city commissioners agreed Thursday to end their red light camera program early next year.
By a unanimous vote, Miami commissioners chose to cancel their 2010 contract with American Traffic Solutions to maintain and operate dozens of red light cameras around the city. The vote gives the company 60 days to wind down its lucrative operations in the city, and allows Mayor Francis Suarez and City Commissioner Joe Carollo to say they kept a campaign promise.
For drivers in the city, the cancellation of the contract means that their license tags will no longer be photographed and reported by cameras perched above intersections around the city, although cameras will still exist elsewhere in Miami-Dade County. Citations running $158 a pop will vanish along with the cameras, but anyone hit with one before the program ends should still expect to deal with it.
"We have a very poor city," said Commissioner Joe Carollo, who claimed on the campaign trail that Miami has more red light cameras than any other city in the U.S. "That's a huge amount of money taken out of our city."
Initially, the cameras were seen as safety measures. But it wasn't long before the public began to question whether cash-poor cities had gone gangbusters with red light cameras in order to pad their budgets during the recession.
In Miami, one of the poorest major cities in the U.S., Suarez has been trying to end the program since 2013. Commissioners were able to end their contract with American Traffic Solutions "for convenience" Thursday, thanks to a clause that allowed the city to back out of its agreement without penalties.
Challenges have also surfaced about the legality of red light cameras. The Florida Supreme Court is expected to consider a case in February.
But Thursday's decision was not without its detractors.
Melissa Wandall, whose late husband, Mark, was the namesake for the state law authorizing red light cameras in 2010, urged commissioners to reconsider. So did Miami's police union, which warned that the city also uses the cameras to solve crimes and pay bills: Had Miami not canceled its program, the city expected to rake in $10.5 million in red light camera citations this fiscal year, with American Traffic Solutions anticipating a $4.4 million cut.
At one point, Marc Buoniconti, an activist for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, which along with Jackson Memorial Hospital and Miami Children's Hospital receives money from the city's red light camera program, slammed Suarez and the commissioners for pushing to cut medical funding.
"Don't be responsible for more people losing their lives," he said. "Are you going to go to the funerals of these families if you turn these cameras off?"
Suarez, however, said he'd planned ahead. He produced a letter from future Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Hialeah, in which he committed to ensure that whatever funding would be lost for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis would be included in any House appropriations bill in 2018.
Charles Territo, an ATS spokesman, wrote in a statement that video from the cameras was used for nearly 2,500 police investigations, and said fatal crashes at intersections equipped with their cameras fell from 16 in 2015 to 4 in 2016. Territo also said "nearly 65 percent of the violations issued were given to drivers who didn't even live in the city."
"Regardless of today's decision the fact remains that Miami is one of the most dangerous cities in the nation for pedestrians and bicyclists," Territo said. "We wish them the best on their efforts to reduce traffic related collisions, injuries and fatalities."
In other action Thursday, commissioners granted a request by outgoing City Manager Daniel Alfonso to pay him roughly $85,000 in severance pay and unused sick and vacation time when he leaves the city's employment. Alfonso had planned to leave Jan. 2, but agreed to stay on the job officially until Jan. 10, the day before the commission plans to vote on whether to ratify Emilio Gonzalez as the new city manager.
There were jokes about Alfonso staying on even longer but that won't happen: Alfonso, who is planning to be on vacation until taking a job at Nova Southeastern University, has already signed his termination agreement.
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