Senator vowing to kill red light cameras wants answers from TxDOT

Red light camera at North MoPac and Howard Lane (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The state senator who promised to ban red light cameras following a KXAN investigation told the Texas Department of Transportation to identify cities with illegal red light cameras and to stop them from using the devices. Senator Don Huffines sent TxDOT the three-page letter Oct. 2, listing eight separate points he wants addressed, including looking into whether ticketed drivers could be refunded.

In September 2007, the state’s red light camera law went into effect, requiring any city with a red light camera to perform a traffic engineering study — signed and sealed by a licensed Texas engineer — before issuing any more tickets. Some Texas cities had cameras installed before Sept. 1, 2007 but were still required to file the studies. The studies would show a fact-based need for the cameras at intersections when no other change could be made to reduce crashes at an intersection.

On the 10th anniversary of the law, KXAN finished an investigation into whether the 60 Texas cities, that have or had the red light cameras, complied with the law requiring the traffic engineering study. We found only three cities had performed a signed and sealed engineering study.

A public records request to the city of Austin showed no signed, sealed traffic engineering study was ever performed for any of the city’s nine red light cameras. Austin’s cameras have led to more than $5.6 million in fines since the city signed its red light camera contract in 2008. Statewide, cities have collected $537 million, according to records from the Texas Comptroller’s Office.

“It’s outrageous and I’m shocked,” Huffines told KXAN following our investigation that aired Sept. 10. “If the citizens violated the law, they’d get to go to jail. Why don’t we hold these cities accountable for violating the law? We must do that and that’s what I’m going to do next session,” Huffines promised.

Now, Huffines wants a “comprehensive report” of all red light cameras installed along state roads that are “in violation of the statutory provisions” of the state’s red light camera law.

For those not in compliance, Huffines told TxDOT in his letter to send a formal notice to “cease and desist operations of those cameras” within three business days. Huffines further instructs TxDOT to order cities with illegal red light cameras to “remove the equipment installed on a portion of state highway and/or its right-of-way within 30 calendar days,” the letter states.

The Huffines letter also asks TXDOT to research whether there’s any obligation under the law for cities to issue refunds to drivers who “paid a ticket that was issued by an illegally-operated red light camera.”

KXAN asked TxDOT whether the agency is doing any in-house analysis of the annual red light camera data to track whether the cameras were achieving safety goals. The annual reports each city gives the agency show the number of tickets issued, the number of crashes at the camera intersection and whether the crashes were related to the red light.

“TxDOT’s role is to provide crash data and publish the red light camera reports,” the agency’s media relations department wrote to KXAN Aug. 29.

It also reminds municipalities to report the data to TxDOT every year, which they do using electronic forms. TXDOT does not verify the annual camera crash data and does not review it for accuracy.

As far as compliance questions, the TxDOT email to KXAN stated the agency “does not have enforcement authority” and simply posts the annual data it receives from cities to the TxDOT web site.

“When a Texan breaks state law, he or she faces consequences, including a fine or even jail time. Cities must not be allowed to break the law with impunity,” Huffines wrote TxDOT.

We’ve asked TxDOT for a response to Huffines’ letter. As of this report, TxDOT has not issued a response.