Sponsor believes they are nothing more than thinly veiled taxes

BATON ROUGE, La – As Louisiana municipalities struggle to mend their financial straits, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu may soon be without one of his most productive, yet controversial revenue generators: automated speed cameras.

Since 2008, Orleans parish officials have depended on an ever-expanding grid of red light and speed cameras to provide revenue for their budget. Currently, the New Orleans program of “Automated Traffic Enforcement Systems” (ATES) is comprised of at least fifty-six high tech optical devices that cast an ever-watchful eye over the city’s streets.

These devices face termination in the current legislative session with Senate Bill 75 and House Bill 347. The former, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Martiny (R – Metairie), would prohibit local municipal authorities from authorizing, installing, using, or enforcing electronic vehicle speed enforcement systems to regulate traffic laws. Here, the key word is speed, meaning that red light camera systems would be unaffected. (Click here for a list New Orleans area traffic cameras.)

The House bill, whose primary author is Rep. Jeffery Arnold (D – New Orleans), would prevent local governing authorities from imposing or collecting fines from both speed and red light infringements. Only a voter approved local referendum could overturn the prohibition.

The cameras under consideration operate as you would imagine: a vehicle traveling through a red light after a predetermined time or exceeding a specified speed limit stimulates an automatic response from the cameras. And, as many of us are all too familiar, the identifying features of the motor vehicle are recorded.

Unfortunately, suspected traffic violators caught in the lens of the cameras face an uphill battle if they choose to contest the matter.

According to Joseph McMahon III, a Metairie attorney, who has been challenging the system for the past three years, says parishes and other municipalities across Louisiana have turned traffic violations, which were previously criminal offenses, into civil matters.

The adjustment, he claims, has deprived citizens of their constitutional rights.

“They have basically altered the system. They have changed the rules in such a way that anyone who gets a ticket is at an absolute disadvantage”.

The Senate Bill’s sponsor, Daniel Martiny, echoes the notion that the burden of proof is on the motorist to prove they weren’t speeding.

“The system ought to lend itself to a fair resolution of dispute, and it doesn’t.”

Martiny also conveyed a common perception shared by opponents of the system “It’s so obvious that it is a money grab by local governments.”

At $145 for a red light violation and between $80 and $240 for speeding tickets, the money quickly adds up. In 2009 and 2010, the revenue in Orleans was more than $13 million and $24 million, respectively. That suggests more than 10,000 tickets every month.

For the 2011 fiscal year, the Mayor’s budget projects $23 million in revenue – around 5 percent of the general fund – though critics suspect even this estimate to be a gross understatement.

The National Motorists Association has publicly voiced its opposition to speed and red-light cameras, with the claim that niether improve safety. In fact, a University of South Florida report claims that red-light cameras “increase crashes and injuries as drivers attempt to abruptly stop at camera intersections.”

Courtesy of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

To place the safety motive for camera use under further suspicion, six U.S. cities have been convicted of shortening the yellow light so as to catch more people on the red. However, none of those were in Louisiana.

These aren’t the only major complaints against the ATES. Last fall, plaintiffs successfully argued that the current city charter was not amended to give the Department of Public Works, who then administered the program, authority to regulate traffic violations.

Eventually, the issue made its way to the Louisiana Supreme Court which ruled that the city’s management of the program was illegal. Consequently, the use and enforcement of the cameras was temporarily suspended.

After going through a series of appeals, the New Orleans City Council eventually shifted administrative duties away from the Public Works Department to the New Orleans Police Department, on November 4, 2010. Traffic cameras then resumed business as usual.

Not surprising, the transfer of responsibility to the NOPD created its own set of problems. Most recently, a WDSU investigative team uncovered that a private, Jefferson Parish based firm, Anytime Solutions, was delegated the responsibility of reviewing the footage, ultimately determining what instances were ticket-worthy.

Ironically, the company’s vice-president is Police Commander Edwin Hosli. All of the company’s employees are high-ranking city police officers working as “paid” details. According to the same report, Anytime Solutions was paid up $10,000 every two weeks to review the material.

Since making headlines, Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas shifted duties to the motorcycle department of the Traffic Division.

Mayor Landrieu’s office has previously argued that this a crucial revenue source for the city and that the elimination of traffic cameras or red light cameras, in particular, could “impact essential city services and could result in additional furloughs and closing of city facilities.”

Despite repeated invitations, Mayor Landrieu’s office did not release a statement on the latest proposed legislation.

Justin Spittler is a research assistant with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. Spittler studies economics at Loyola University in New Orleans, and you can follow him on twitter.