L.A. Council gridlocked on red-light cameras

The prospects for Los Angeles’ red-light cameras dimmed considerably Tuesday, as a deeply divided City Council failed to muster the votes to resurrect the program six weeks before it is set to end.

Using statistics, history lessons and even a reference to talk show host David Letterman, council members spent 90 minutes arguing the merits of the controversial traffic enforcement system without mustering eight votes to settle the matter one way or the other.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s appointees on the Police Commission voted to kill the initiative two weeks ago, calling it expensive and unfair to drivers. Motorists who receive red-light camera tickets face no risk to their credit rating, their car registrations or their driver’s licenses if they refuse to pay, police said.

Seven council members sided with the commission, voting to kill the program. “If you don’t have teeth in the law, why have the law?” asked Councilman Dennis Zine, a retired traffic officer.


Only five council members voiced outright support for the cameras, which photograph any vehicle that crosses against the light or turns right without coming to a full stop. They argued that the cameras are an essential part of the city’s public safety arsenal and should be kept even if only a fraction of the city’s residents pay the tickets.

“People are dying by running red lights, and that’s the primary concern here,” Councilman Richard Alarcon said. “If this program will reduce that number, who cares about the cost?”

Three council members were absent.

Of the 4,683 intersections in the city that have traffic signals, 32 are equipped with cameras. Because neither side had a majority, the issue will return on Wednesday’s council agenda and every subsequent agenda until there are eight votes to do something.

Councilman Tony Cardenas, who represents a portion of the San Fernando Valley, spent the last week pushing a plan to keep the current contractor, Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions, in place for up to a year while the city conducts a new safety study. Lacking support for that move Tuesday, he tried without success to persuade his colleagues to back a more limited review of the issue before July 31.

The stalemate took hold despite a push in favor of the cameras by Sage Advisors, a lobbying firm that represents American Traffic Solutions. Sage lobbyist Lucy McCoy has been a frequent presence at council meetings over the last two weeks and, on Monday, distributed information showing that the U.S. Conference of Mayors, of which Villaraigosa was recently elected president, had endorsed red-light cameras as a way to reduce traffic fatalities.

Despite that development, Villaraigosa stood by the decision of his appointees. “He supports the Police Commission’s decision, but he respects other cities and their right to develop their own programs,” spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said.

LAPD Sgt. Matthew P. MacWillie said injury-related traffic collisions have dropped 21% over five years at the intersections where cameras have been installed. MacWillie also described the running of red lights as the No. 1 cause of traffic collisions in the city.

A Times investigation in 2008 found that some cities, including Los Angeles, get most of their photo enforcement money from citing slower, rolling-stop right turns, which many experts say cause fewer and less serious accidents. Two years later, City Controller Wendy Greuel found that the program cost the city $1 million annually to operate, with 45% of red-light camera tickets going unpaid.

Three council members — Jose Huizar, Paul Koretz and Ed Reyes — also agreed with Police Commission President John Mack, who complained two weeks ago that the city rarely imposes its boycott of Arizona, part of a protest over that state’s immigration law. American Traffic Solutions is based in Scottsdale.

“Does the Arizona boycott mean anything to us, or are we still all talk and no action on this issue?” asked Koretz, an outspoken critic of the red-light cameras.

Koretz borrowed from the playbook of David Letterman, taking his top 10 list of arguments against the program and reading it to his colleagues. “There are so many different arguments I think one could use against this, but I think I’ll limit it to 10,” he said.

Councilman Tom LaBonge said that traffic signals have operated in Los Angeles for more than a century and that technology connected to them should be allowed to evolve. But Council President Eric Garcetti said there was no point in supporting such technology until state legislators make it possible for cities to punish drivers who are caught on camera.

Garcetti also voiced alarm about the high cost of the tickets, which can exceed $500. Such a sum can be devastating to the household budget of a low-income family, he said.

That remark drew a tart response from Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who favors the cameras. “What is even more devastating is if you lose a life or cripple someone for life because of a traffic accident,” he said.