Government & Politics
 

Contract requires traffic-camera company to study wrecks, but New Orleans won’t push it

City workers have been installing signs warning drivers that cameras will soon enforce speed limits in school zones. The city is undertaking a massive expansion of the program, which issues about 252,000 tickets and nets the city about $16 million a year.

Marta Jewson / The Lens

City workers have been installing signs warning drivers that cameras will soon enforce speed limits in school zones. The city is undertaking a massive expansion of the program, which issues about 252,000 tickets and nets the city about $16 million a year.

The contract for New Orleans’ traffic camera program requires the company to study wrecks at each location before cameras are installed.

As The Lens reported last month, neither the city nor the company, American Traffic Solutions, could produce any such study going back to when the first contract was signed in 2007.

But Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration does not appear to be in a hurry to make the company meet the terms of its contract. In fact, a spokeswoman for the city told The Lens late Thursday that the contract has never required the company to do such studies.

The Landrieu administration has undertaken a major expansion of the traffic camera program. The new cameras are supposed to increase revenue from camera tickets by 50 percent, but Landrieu has said the expansion is motivated by safety, not money.

However, as we reported last month, the city has provided no evidence that traffic cameras have any effect on wrecks in the city. Traffic-safety experts recommend local governments study wrecks before and after cameras are installed to judge their effectiveness.

Nationally, studies have produced no consensus on whether cameras reduce wrecks. Some have found reductions in both the severity and frequency of car crashes; others have found such purported benefits to be exaggerated.

Two city council members, including a candidate to succeed Landrieu in this year’s mayoral election, want to see more evidence from the administration.

“If this is in their contract, then there is an obligation to conduct such a study,” said Councilwoman Latoya Cantrell, who announced her run for mayor last month. If the city is recommending where cameras should be installed, “the study should guide that.”

The 2007 contract calls for American Traffic Solutions to study the “traffic characteristics“ at any site where the city wants to install a camera. Those studies must include traffic volume, tickets issued and crash frequency.

That requirement wasn’t removed in any of the contract renewals that are available on the city’s website. The agreement was last renewed in August.

American Traffic Solutions submitted the 2007 contract, including the traffic study requirement, in two federal lawsuits in 2013 and 2014. The purpose of the exhibits was to clarify the terms of the company’s contract.

The city was a codefendant in both suits and didn’t object to the exhibits.

Before we published our story about the traffic cameras, we asked the city and the company about the requirement to conduct these studies. No one disputed it.

But when we asked the city this week whether it would enforce the provision, city spokeswoman Erin Burns told us by email, “Neither the original or new contract with ATS require a traffic study to be conducted.”

She sent that at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. City Hall is closed Friday, and Burns has not responded to repeated efforts to get her to explain her statement.

Marc Ehrhardt, a local spokesman for the company, didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.

The city — not the company — did study the new traffic locations last year, using state crash data. By then, 66 cameras had been operating around the city for years. We’ve asked repeatedly for prior studies; the city says it doesn’t have any.

Two councilmembers say they want safety data

The 55 cameras being added this spring will nearly double the number of cameras around the city. They’re expected to bring in about $24 million in fines this year. Last year, they brought in $16 million.

American Traffic Solutions typically gets about 30 percent of those fines, city officials told The Lens.

Cantrell said she initially pushed back against Landrieu’s 2017 budget recommendation that included the new cameras, though she ultimately voted in favor of it.

All the new stationary cameras will be located in school zones. Ten more mobile units can be placed anywhere in the city.

She noted that she had created a working group to study school transportation safety after the 2014 hit-and-run death of six-year-old Shaud Wilson near his school bus stop.

“Not one recommendation from that working group was that we needed more traffic cameras added,” she said.

Councilman Jared Brossett said he hopes the council’s budget committee, which meets later this month, will address the lack of data on the cameras. He said Councilwoman Stacy Head, who chairs the committee, should invite staff from the city and the company.

“I want to see, what is the correlation between safety and traffic cameras?” Brossett said. “The contract has a requirement for the data.”

Administration officials will discuss revenue from the cameras at the meeting, Head said.

“I am not working to monitor the contract for the cameras and make sure the administration ensures the requirements are fulfilled, so I don’t have anything to add,” she said.

Burns has said traffic cameras reduce speeding, and “reduced speeding decreases the likelihood of crashes and increases public safety.”

Brossett said that falls short. “That may be true,” he said. “Them saying that is not enough. We need to see the data. We need to see it and the public needs to see it.”

Other City Council members declined to be interviewed for this story or did not respond to requests for comment.

Pushback in the Legislature

Traffic cameras have come under fire in the state Legislature this year. State Rep. Paul Hollis (R-Covington) has proposed a constitutional amendment that would make them illegal statewide.

The measure would have to be approved by two-thirds of state legislators and a majority of voters statewide.

Told about the lack of safety studies for New Orleans’ cameras, Hollis at first said he was skeptical of them. “The studies usually support the opinion of the person funding the study,” he said.

Even so, he said he was surprised that the city doesn’t have them. “Ten years later, you can’t put forth a little study showing the signs are good for safety? That’s easy.”

Some states require local governments to report crashes in camera zones. Louisiana isn’t among them. Hollis said he hasn’t considered that requirement.

“I have such disdain for them, I don’t want to do anything that makes them more stomachable,” he said. “Even if these things improve the safety, which I don’t believe they do, an improvement in safety is not worth your Sixth Amendment right to confront your accuser.”

State Sen. Troy Carter (D-New Orleans), a potential mayoral candidate, has been particularly critical of the city’s new mobile traffic cameras. He has filed a bill that would tighten requirements for signs that mark traffic camera locations.

Carter said he’s skeptical of the benefits of traffic cameras, but he doesn’t support Hollis’ bill.

“If your intent is to deter, that’s a good thing. If the intent is to increase revenue, that’s a bad thing,” Carter said. “If you have signs up reminding people that there are consequences to your speeding … then it can serve as a deterrent.”

Asked if the city should collect and analyze data on wrecks at current or proposed camera sites, he said he favors “anything that justifies their existence, that proves it to the citizenry, and proves it to me also.”

Cantrell said she will rethink the traffic camera expansion if she’s elected mayor.

“I would revisit the camera situation based on measuring the impact and effectiveness and wanting to be accountable. And it it’s working, it’s working,” she said. “Is the extra money worth the added burden on people?”

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