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Program has generated $335,000 in profit for city since 2011

by Gregg MacDonald

Staff Writer

Red-light cameras in the City of Fairfax could be placed about every half-mile within city limits if a proposal made by Police Chief Rick Rappoport at Tuesday’s city council work session is approved.

Fairfax was the first municipality in the Commonwealth to implement the controversial cameras in 1997 when the 1995 Virginia General Assembly allowed them for a 10-year trial period.

In 2005, that trial period ended, and the city was forced to stop using them.

A new Virginia law was established two years later, allowing the cameras once again.

In 2011 Fairfax received approval from the Virginia Department of Transportation to re-establish a four-camera red-light camera program at the intersections of routes 29 and 50, and for the intersections of University Drive and North Street. Those cameras are still in use today.

Now Rappoport wants to increase the number of camera intersections from 3 to 10, and the city no longer requires VDOT approval thanks to a new law passed by the General Assembly last year.

The new law allows municipalities to use cameras at a certain number of intersections based on the size of the municipality. Rappoport told the council that Fairfax could legally have as many as 10 of its 58 intersections under camera control.

“The city is only six square miles,” said City of Fairfax Mayor Scott Silverthorne. “That would be one about every half-mile.”

Fairfax currently contracts with Australian-based company Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. to maintain its red-light program, but that contract is up for renegotiation, and Rappoport says the city can get a better deal by adding more intersections to the program.

“We are in the process of picking a vendor for the next contract period,” he said Tuesday. “We will get a better price from a vendor if we have 10 intersections as opposed, for example, to just one.”

Rappoport also suggested creating a new staff position — a “motor officer” at an annual cost of $110,000 — to oversee the additional workload of adding seven new intersections to the program.

“The revenues will more than cover the cost of this new position,” he said.

Rappoport said since the program’s inception in August 2011, the cameras have yielded more than 17,000 approved citations, which cost violators $50 each and have netted the city more than $335,000 in profit after expenses. “Less than 1 percent of those citations are contested,” Rappoport added. The $335,000 has gone into the city’s General Fund, according to the city’s director of finance, David Hodgkins.

“I must confess I have never been totally comfortable with this program,” councilman Steven Stombres said. “In terms of the revenue, we have all probably told people in the community that this is not a revenue issue, even though it has generated more than $300,000 in profit.”

“I thought this was a revenue neutral program,” Councilman Dan Drummond said.

Hodgkins said the profits are a product of the newness of the program’s implementation, but they will eventually diminish. “We will eventually reach diminishing return as behavior changes,” he said.

Despite the program’s profits, Rappoport said the program is strictly one of safety and that it has made a difference. “I don’t concern myself at all with the money-making aspect,” he said. “We operate the program without regard to what the revenue consequences of our decisions are.”

He told the council that accident data one year after the program’s start shows there have been no accidents related to “panic stops,” and that overall accident numbers are relatively stable. “There has not been a single rear-end collision attributable to the program,” he said. “The ones that do occur are more likely to be a third or fourth car that rear-ends someone because they are distracted by texting or talking on a cell phone.”

Mayor Silverthorne tabled the discussion of the program’s expansion to a later council work session.

“There are some lingering questions on the part of council that will be best served by delaying this process,” he said. “I myself support this program but I have concerns about expanding it from three to 10 intersections … It seems excessive. On top of that, we are talking about creating staff positions to administer the program. Let’s bring this back for an additional work session.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com