TAMPA — In the coming year, surveillance cameras will start catching drivers who blow through red lights at some of Tampa's most accident-prone intersections.
The penalty: a $158 ticket, $75 of which will go to the city. Police say data from other cities shows that red light cameras make drivers safer.
In a close vote Thursday, the City Council agreed.
"The evidence is really very, very strong that it will save lives," Council member Harry Cohen said.
A handful of skeptics disagreed.
"I don't know who came up with this rip-off, but it's a bad idea," resident Don Gore said. "It destroys our liberties."
Tampa police have been studying the use of red light cameras since 2007. Thursday's vote was set up when the previous council deadlocked on the issue last month.
Along with Cohen, council members Mary Mulhern, Lisa Montelione and Mike Suarez supported installing the cameras.
Voting no were council members Yvonne Yolie Capin and Frank Reddick, and council Chairman Charlie Miranda.
Miranda and Capin had a problem with the city administration's plan to put the ticket revenue in the city's general fund, which supports the police, fire and other departments. They said the city should spend the money making intersections safer. If it did, they said they could support the cameras.
"I would really want to support this," Capin said. "I just would want to see this money used in a directed way."
With Thursday's vote, American Traffic Solutions of Scottsdale, Ariz., will install surveillance cameras at a minimum of 10 but maybe 20 or more intersections around the city.
The company and the city have up to a year to deploy the cameras. Assistant Police Chief John Bennett said officials will take their time educating drivers before any tickets go in the mail.
The experience of other communities shows that red-light cameras lead motorists to drive more safely, and not only at the monitored intersections, police say.
Around Florida, cities that use the cameras see a 22 percent drop in the number of citations issued after the first year, Bennett said.
In unincorporated Hillsborough County, accidents with injuries dropped from 62 in 2008 to 31 in 2010 at six monitored intersections.
"That's a tremendous savings of life, property and law enforcement time," Bennett said.
Hillsborough County put up 10 cameras at the six intersections in 2009. From Jan. 1, 2010 to Feb. 28 of this year, nearly 34,000 violations had been issued and county revenues have totaled almost $1.8 million after payments to the vendor and other expenses.
City officials have said it's not possible to predict how much revenue the cameras will generate.
First, they said they have to decide what intersections to cover and how many cameras to use.
Violations will carry fines of $158, with $75 going to the city and $83 to the state. American Traffic Solutions will be paid out of the city's share, part of which also will cover the city's expenses.
Depending on how many intersections are covered, the contract requires the city to pay American Traffic Solutions from $3,750 to $4,400 per month for each approach monitored by the company's cameras.
Intersections with dangerous traffic in more than one direction likely would have cameras covering more than one approach. For example, police say the city's single worst intersection — 40th Street and Hillsborough Avenue — has three hazardous approaches: northbound, southbound and eastbound.
But city officials say they can't lose money on the deal. That's because the city's share of the revenue is guaranteed to at least match the company's total cost of providing the system. If revenues fall short of operating costs, the company will absorb the difference.
City officials said the vendor will spend $50,000 on a public education program before the cameras are installed. The city also will spend 30 days sending warnings before violations are issued. Violations would go to the owner of the car that ran the signal.
Once the system is in place, a Tampa police officer will look at every potential violation before a ticket is mailed.
"It's not just at the discretion of a traffic specialist or even the vendor," Bennett said. "We actually look at every violation that comes through."
The city does not intend to use the cameras to cite drivers for making illegal right turns. Cities that do, Bennett said, see a surge in the number of citations issued.
He said the city is trying to focus on the most dangerous behavior.
Meanwhile, state legislators are considering House Bill 4087, which would ban the use of red light cameras by cities and counties. The city's contract allows either side to get out of the agreement if the law changes.
"We'll deal with that if they do," said Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a red light camera supporter. "As a dad, I am scared to death with some of these intersections."
Richard Danielson can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3403.