Crashes, tickets, timing have Aurora council taking new look at photo-red system

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AURORA | The city’s photo red-light program is getting closer scrutiny from several City Council members, with some looking at scaling back the program and asking voters to disband it altogether.

At a study session Monday night, council members delayed voting on a measure to end photo red-light tickets for violations committed in a left-turn lane.

Ward IV Councilman Charlie Richardson, who is behind the measure, said he wanted to see if specific amendments could instead be made to the city’s contract with Xerox, which provides the photo red-light system for the intersections.

Richardson said it seems unfair to citizens that the lights are timed differently for the tickets, which start at $75, but can increase if they go into collections. 

“I do have a concern about the length of the yellow arrow in most cases only being three seconds,” Richardson said before the meeting.

Anna Bunce, a project engineer with the city’s traffic department, confirmed with the Aurora Sentinel via email that tickets are issued after a four-second yellow light on straight-through lanes and after three seconds in left-turn lanes in Aurora.

If passed, Richardson’s measure would have still allowed Aurora police to issue photo red-light citations for violations committed in a through lane or a right-turn lane.

Richardson, who is also working on a ballot measure for the fall to ask voters whether to keep the photo red-light system, said during the meeting that he wasn’t surprised to see left-turn violations being the most profitable violation for the city.

LEFT-HAND TURN VIOLATIONS MAKE UP NEARLY HALF OF CITY’S PHOTO RED-LIGHT REVENUE

Data about the photo red-light intersections from 2013 to 2015 showed left-hand turn violations have accounted for more and more of total photo red-light tickets issued. In 2013, they comprised 37 percent of around 62,000 tickets issued; in 2014 they accounted for 41 percent of about 62,000 tickets issued, and in 2015 they made up 42 percent of 58,000 tickets issued.

According to the same data, left-turn violations have also accounted for more photo red-light revenue since 2013. In 2013, left-turn violations brought in about 38 percent of all photo red-light revenue, or $1.3 million. In 2014, they accounted for around 43 percent of all photo red-light revenue at nearly $1.4 million; in 2015, they accounted for 44 percent of total red-light revenue at around $1.3 million.

According to the same data, overall revenues for all photo red-light tickets have decreased since 2014, dropping from $3.2 million in 2014 to $2.9 million in 2015.

XEROX CONTRACT RENEWAL DELAYED

Later on in the evening, council agreed to postpone a vote on renewing the contract for the photo red-light system with Xerox, until a meeting a week before the current pact expires in June. The contract renewal, which would go through June 2017, was originally scheduled for the April 18 regular session.

Several council members questioned the duration and timing of the contract extension, citing ongoing measures in the state Legislature concerning photo red-light systems as well as asking voters to weigh a ballot measure on the system.

“Why are we rushing?” asked Ward II Aurora Councilwoman Renie Peterson. “Limit the amount, just keep them where you think you really need them until the voters make the decision of whether they want to keep them or not.”

Ward VI Aurora Councilwoman Francoise Bergan said she also thinks the crash statistics make the issue more complex. Bergan, who was absent from the April 11 study session due to chemotherapy, expressed similar concerns at a previous meeting. At the March 21 council meeting, when the Xerox contract was first delayed, she said she would like to see the issue go to voters in the fall.

“If we renew it, we imply it’s working,” she said as to why she decided to delay voting on renewing the city’s contract with Xerox. “From my perspective, I don’t like having programs unless they really solve problems. Looking at the data, it doesn’t necessarily correlate.”

Council members also expressed concerns with renewing the contract before the state decides on House Bill 1231, a compromise bill that would prevent red-light cameras and radars from expanding in Colorado. Sponsored by state Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, the bill would ban the cameras on the state’s local and collector roads. HB 1231 is currently tied up in a committee in the Colorado statehouse.

The city’s 2017 contract with Xerox, if approved, would include $12,000 paid by Xerox and matched by the city toward a $24,000 intersection study. According to city documents, the study would not begin until late this year or early 2017, and revenue from the photo red-light program would pay for any remaining costs.

Aurora Councilwoman At-Large Barb Cleland was absent from the April 11 meeting.

POLICE SAY SYSTEM KEEPING RESIDENTS SAFER

According to Aurora police, there are four officers and two administrators who review each photo red-light ticket. Aurora police Lt. Michael McClelland said police review possible violations on the principle of whether they would write that person a ticket if they were stationed on a corner watching them.

City data showed an increase in possible violations triggered by the system being dismissed from 2012 to 2015 after police review. In 2012, Aurora police issued tickets for about 75 percent of possible violations found by the system. In 2015, that rate dropped to around 65 percent.

After the meeting, McClelland said Aurora police consider the program to be safe on account of a drop in accidents causing serious bodily injury, namely front-to-side “T-bone”-style crashes at intersections where photo red-light cameras have been placed. Crash data for all of the 14 intersections with cameras from 2010 to 2015 provided by the city also show that no fatalities have occurred at any of the intersections during the five-year study period.

REAR-END CRASHES ON RISE AT AURORA’S PHOTO RED-LIGHT INTERSECTIONS

Some council members contend that the cameras have caused an uptick in fender benders, which is confirmed through data provided by the city on the cameras. Front-to-rear crashes represented about 72 percent of all crashes at photo red-light intersections in Aurora from 2010 to 2015. In 2015 alone, 64 of 82 total crashes (78 percent) reported at the city’s photo-red-enforced intersections were rear-end collisions.

The areas with the highest percentage of rear-end collisions were eastbound Mississippi Avenue at Chambers Road and westbound Iliff Avenue at Chambers Road, with about 82 percent of all crashes in the period being rear-end collisions.

City officials can point to improved crash statistics for the northbound lanes of South Chambers Road at East Mississippi Avenue, though. Despite the vast majority of crashes in 2010 and 2011 being rear-end collisions, there were no such crashes in 2015 and only two the previous year.

GOING TO VOTERS

In addition to Richardson’s statements about putting the photo red-light system on the municipal ballot later this year, Ward I Councilwoman Sally Mounier has been among the most-consistent critics of the program on council.

“I’m not going to vote for photo red-light if the world is coming to an end,” said Mounier, who is also working on a ballot measure for the fall that will ask voters whether or not they want to keep the system.

Hers and Richardson’s red-light ballot proposals will first be discussed at an April 21 public safety meeting, and also decided upon at the June 20 regular city council meeting.

Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan described that upcoming meeting as a “photo red-light jamboree.”

The photo red-light program brings in approximately $3.3 million annually in revenue, according to Aurora police. About $500,000 of that money goes toward a “nexus” program that relies on photo red-light fine revenues to support nonprofits that provide a substantial service to law enforcement.

— Managing Editor Chris Harrop contributed to this story.