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Red-light cameras could make a return to St. Louis streets

Red-light cameras could make a return to St. Louis streets

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Updated at 6:15 p.m.

ST. LOUIS — Red-light cameras may be turned on again in St. Louis.

The Streets Department is soliciting proposals from private companies to provide camera systems to catch vehicles running lights.

They haven’t been used in St. Louis and most of the rest of Missouri since state Supreme Court rulings in 2015 effectively set up new restrictions on their use.

Mayor Lyda Krewson said Wednesday that the goal is to improve traffic law enforcement in a city with a chronic shortage of police officers.

“This isn’t about revenue at all; it’s about how we can have safer streets,” she said. “Anybody who drives up and down Kingshighway or Grand, or Gravois or Natural Bridge, sees the speeding and red-light running.”

Krewson and her director of operations, Todd Waelterman, emphasized that a decision to bring back the cameras has yet to be made. That will depend on their cost and other factors.

And the Board of Aldermen would have to sign off on the idea.

“We don’t know if it will be fruitful or not,” Waelterman told the aldermanic Streets Committee on Tuesday. “We think there’s about half a dozen vendors that will probably bid on this thing.”

Under the Supreme Court decisions, red-light cameras have to take photos of drivers, not just vehicles as the city used to do.

In one case, the court ruled that the old St. Louis ordinance improperly required the defendant to prove that he or she wasn’t operating the vehicle at the time of the violation.

“They’ve got some very tough rules now to make this work,” Waelterman said of the court. “We now … have to identify the driver, we’ve got to recognize their face, an officer has to prove that (they’re) in the car and they’ll wind up getting (penalty) points on their license.”

The penalty-point requirement was imposed by a Supreme Court ruling in a case involving St. Peters.

The city, in its request for proposals to vendors issued on Nov. 8, also asked companies to bid on speed cameras — a technology St. Louis officials have not used in the past.

The streets committee chairman, Jeffrey Boyd, D-22nd Ward, said in an interview he supports the return of red-light cameras.

“I’m excited about the possibilities because I think it will make the city safer,” he said. “When we had those red-light cameras, people were more cautious about stopping at lights. They assumed every stoplight had a camera.”

He said the same dynamic would occur with speed cameras if people think there’s a better chance they’ll get a speeding ticket than there is now.

“I hope they let me sponsor it,” he quipped.

Waelterman said speed cameras can be installed in locations such as school zones and take photos of violators and transmit them to a database. Or, he said, they can be used in mobile vans staffed by police officers.

“We get a van and put a live officer in there,” he said. “And he looks at the data. He doesn’t have to pull them over; he doesn’t confront the guy. Think about how fast it is.”

State Rep. Bryan Spencer, a Wentzville Republican who has tried unsuccessfully to pass state laws banning red-light cameras, pushed back against Krewson’s statement that revenue isn’t the goal.

“I would assume they would be doing taxation through citation,” Spencer said. “They’re looking at money. St. Louis is in trouble.”

Jacob Long, Krewson’s spokesman, said an increase in fatal accidents on city streets since red-light cameras were phased out is part of the rationale for taking another look at red-light cameras.

He said there were 171 roadway fatalities in the city in 2016-18, the first three full years after the cameras were turned off.

That was a 46% increase over the 117 recorded in 2012-14, the last three full years before the cameras were shut down.

Pedestrian fatalities increased to 40 from 26 during the same time periods, Long said. While city officials don’t claim that the camera shutdown was the only reason, they say it’s part of the overall picture.

Bevis Schock, a Clayton-based lawyer who has challenged some other cities’ camera laws in court, said he doubted whether bringing back the cameras would result in less speeding and red-light running.

“They are people who don’t seem to be participating in civil society in which we respect each other’s space and laws,” Schock said. Most won’t obey the law even if cameras are watching them, he predicted.

Waelterman said the city administration’s decision on whether to recommend the use of cameras again will be “a balance between state law and technology and expense and cost and manpower on whether or not this system will work.”

At their peak in 2011, about 30 cities across Missouri relied on red-light cameras. But as of now, Hannibal is the only community still using them. Many of the overhead cameras formerly used in St. Louis and its suburbs remain in place but are no longer activated.

Before any decision to use red-light cameras and speed cameras is made, the Board of Aldermen would have to overhaul the city ordinance adopted for the city’s previous system. 

The mayor said any revenue generated by the new cameras would be earmarked for street safety improvements and the hiring of any additional personnel needed to run the new system.

City officials say the cameras would be among various strategies used to try to slow down traffic and cut accidents.

For example, the city in recent years has installed 135 speed humps on residential streets and has applications pending for 147 more locations. 

Earlier this year, the city reprogrammed walk lights at more than 80 corners in the downtown area to give pedestrians a brief head start before parallel motorists get a green light.

Rapid-flashing beacon stop signs have been installed at some crosswalks and wide-stripe walking areas have been painted at others.

Technology also has been used to combat other crime, with police getting feeds from about 600 cameras across St. Louis. And an Ohio-based surveillance firm has urged city officials to begin a three-year pilot program to use aircraft-borne cameras to track fleeing suspects moments after a shooting is reported.

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