Government & Politics

Traffic camera bill could shoot a $12 million hole in New Orleans budget

Last year Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-Algiers, said, “It is no longer if we get rid of these cameras, it is a matter of when.”

He was talking about traffic cameras, and he was right. While his proposal to unplug the cameras stalled in the Legislature in 2010, this year the passage of his bill looks downright inevitable.

In a recent interview on Kaare Johnson’s WIST 690am radio show, Arnold was optimistic about his measure to kill the cameras. He claimed dozens of co-sponsors  and said Governor Bobby Jindal told him he would sign the bill when it reaches his desk.

The devilish beauty of Arnold’s bill is that it would immediately shut off all the cameras throughout the state, and they would remain off until a municipality organized a ballot measure to turn them back on. In other words, the cameras in New Orleans may go dark as soon as June, and, for once, New Orleanians will have to vote on these cameras in a citywide election.

I’ve previously indicated that reactivation will be a tricky political proposition. My sense is that the electorate mostly dislikes these contraptions. And those who hate them, boy, they really hate them. They’re eager to run red lights rush to their precincts to vote them down, whereas those who generally like the cameras, aren’t as highly motivated by the issue.

I’ve long been a foe of these cameras, and have always believed that voters, if given a chance, would vote them down. In fact, I regularly suggested that local grassroots candidates could get a lot of mileage (groan) out of the issue, if they made it the centerpiece of their campaigns.  Unfortunately, that fantasy was never fulfilled. Arnold was ahead of the curve on this issue, and took advantage of it. He deserves credit.

Assuming his legislation passes, the outlawed cameras will put Mayor Landrieu and the City Council in a serious bind. They will either have to make additional budget cuts that replace over $1 million in lost revenues per month, or they’ll have to mount a campaign to turn them on (not just quickly vote on it). Thus, they’d risk an embarrassing rebuff by voters.

Last week, The Dead Pelican reported that Mayor Landrieu is frantically trying to prevent such unpalatable scenarios:

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has allegedly asked Arnold to drop the bill, but Arnold has refused to do so.

Landrieu has told the Orleans Delegation that this is the “single most dangerous bill for the City of New Orleans.” He has even accused Arnold of “picking the pocket of the City.”

To put it charitably, The Dead Pelican’s exclusive scoops involving Mitch Landrieu have not been extremely reliable. But this one rings true. Landrieu dreads the loss of traffic camera revenue because he knows it will hamstring his ambition to do “everything at once” to improve the city he loves. Plus, he’s politically astute enough to know how the cameras would fare in a referendum.

On top of the legislative momentum for Arnold’s bill, a whole constellation of thorny news stories have recently emerged, in relation to the cameras. So far, they seem to reflect poorly on the NOPD (and therefore the Landrieu administration), because the stories smell of cronyism and lucrative contracts. They reinforce the notion that the whole traffic camera scheme is more about money than safety.

While traffic camera critics like me are giddy about the prospects of Arnold’s legislation, we should maturely acknowledge that passage may have multi-million dollar repercussions on the city budget, and these will probably be noticeable and uncomfortable. Further, there may even be a negative effect on traffic habits and safety.

However, taking all this into account, I still believe we’d be better off in the long-term by ending the city’s addiction to camera revenues now rather than later.

Even if you buy into the idea that the cameras are more about safety than revenues, it still doesn’t make sense for a city to rely on revenues from scofflaws. If the cameras DO actually change driving behavior, as proponents suggest, then these traffic camera revenues will decline over time anyway, as people drive more safely. That creates an incentive for the city to install ever more cameras to overcome the decline in ticket funds.

Eventually, the city’s intersections will be saturated with cameras to a ridiculous degree, frustrating tourists and locals alike. Conversely, if the cameras DON’T in fact improve overall driving behavior, then they are primarily about revenues and we shouldn’t be messing with them in the first place.

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About Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and the Federal Flood he helped create the Rising Tide conference, which grew into an annual social media event dedicated to the future of New Orleans.

  • sobieski

    I have been asking this question everywhere: HOW do we know that the same kickbacks that were in the Jefferson contract are not in the one in Orleans? In JP, 3.2% of the program, which generated $20 million before being cut off, went to a judge’s wife and a former Orleans councilman. The highest echelons of the state GOP party (Charlie Buckles, Rhett Davis, James Quinn (Julie Quinn’s son)) were involved in pushing it like crack in multiple parishes and towns (JP, Baton Rouge, Sulphur, Kenner, Covington, etc., etc.). Orleans went with a different company but who’s to say something similar did not happen? Would someone from the blogging community please start demanding to see the contract, emails and paperwork behind this thing?

    Aside from that it is truly injust. In Orleans not one ticket to date has been handed out by someone who was not a hired contractor, which means that every single of the tickets has been ILLEGAL. Part of the scandal with Hosli is that it turns out, as the TP has reported, that almost every single video was adjudged to be a violation and resulted in a ticket. And how many people have the time or wherewithal or courage to go down and fight these things? At the hearing center it’s probably just rejected and then a person actually has to go to CDC to appeal. Really? The whole thing is just wrong, wrong, wrong.

    The City needs to figure out why its finances and revenues are so poor and fix what needs fixing.

  • If you get rid of the NOPD folks involved in this, without getting rid of the program, we’ll just see this problem rear its ugly head again and again.

    There isn’t a way for the NOPD to actually run this program in a way that appears above board, because the whole concept of the program is dirty.

    Think about it: this program theoretically makes money for the city but the department that manages it is under constant threat of litigation because of the program’s dubious and quasi-legal nature. If the department handles the program in-house, they’re always defending themselves in court with non-camera revenues. If the department contracts the program to an outside organization to mitigate liability, the tickets aren’t legal because they aren’t staffed by law enforcement. So you get an outside organization made up of law enforcement on contract with the city, which is probably against code and reeks of cronyism.

    Best solution: end the program. Shut down the cameras.