Red light cameras across Texas could be operating illegally

Red light cameras investigation.
Red light cameras investigation.

AUSTIN (KXAN) -- There are nine intersections in Austin, armed with a red light camera. You might not notice them, but roll through a red light or roll past that white stop bar painted on the ground and you’re likely to end up with a $75 ticket in the mail.

Austin is one of 60 cities across Texas to have installed red light cameras. Several of those cities have gotten rid of their cameras; mostly because when voters have a say, they vote the cameras out of town.

But, a KXAN Investigation of how these cities installed the cameras shows most all are not in compliance with state law—the law that gave cities the right to charge a civil fine for running a red light.

Before Sept. 1, 2007, there were no rules on how much Texas cities could charge for running a red light. There were no rules on how cities could contract with camera companies with respect to keeping cameras from being used to fill quotas and be turned into money makers for cities.

With the passage of Senate Bill 1119 in 2007, that all changed. The new law gave cities the right to charge drivers civil fines for red light running instead of the criminal penalty. The law became part of Texas Transportation Code, Section 707.003.

The law had one major requirement before a city could install a red light camera: perform a traffic engineering study. Those studies required cities to look for other adjustments that could be made to an intersection to reduce crashes before installing a red light camera—or to help reduce the chances of people running a red light.

In order to find out which cities complied with the law, KXAN filed public records requests with every city that we could find records of ever using a red light camera. KXAN received records from 50 cities. Our analysis of those records shows only three cities appear to have conducted a traffic engineering study that was signed and sealed by a licensed Texas engineer: Abilene, College Station and Southlake.

“We found—more than once, on multiple, multiple occasions…there’s a lot of cities that just didn’t comply with this traffic engineering study requirement—at all,” Russell Bowman told KXAN. Bowman is an attorney in Irving and got a red light ticket in Richardson, Texas in November of 2012. Bowman said he wasn’t driving the car at the time, but someone in his family was. Bowman still got the ticket and would have to prove it wasn’t him running the red light.

Bowman chose to fight the $75 ticket. It was nothing more than a fight on principal, Bowman said.

“They ticketed the wrong guy this time,” Bowman told KXAN investigator Jody Barr.

Bowman filed records requests with Richardson’s city hall. The lack of response, he said, caused him to sue the city.

Knowing the state required cities to perform a traffic engineering study for each red light camera as of Sept. 1, 2007, Bowman wanted to see if Richardson ever performed the study. Richardson officials, Bowman said, never answered his request to see their study.

"I know why they didn’t respond to my letter because they never did those things,” Bowman said. “When I’m looking at the statute, it provides that if the traffic engineering study is not done, they can’t impose a red light camera penalty—they just can’t—the statute prohibits it."

The Lack of an Engineering Study

Our analysis of the 49 cities that responded shows only AbileneCollege Station and Southlake hired professional engineers who signed and sealed those cities' engineering studies.

“We did not want these to become little ATMs along the highway,” State Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, who co-authored the 2007 red light camera law, along with former Dallas-area State Senator, John Carona. Carona—who lost his seat in 2015—declined to participate in this report.

Lawmakers took suggestions from the engineering field before writing the red light law so they could clearly detail that requirement in the bill, Murphy said.

“Part of the engineering study is to say: are there other things you can do because there are measures that are much easier to do, sometimes they’re less expensive,” Murphy said. “It was to say the conditions merit a red light camera and there is no other alternative."

On Aug. 2, the city of Austin sent KXAN a response to a public records request, asking the city for its traffic engineering study. What we got back was 10 pages titled, “Assessment Sheet: Engineering Countermeasures to Reduce Red-Light Running.”

We looked for an engineer’s name on each of the pages. There wasn’t one. There also isn’t an engineer’s seal, identification number or signature on any of the 10 pages.

We showed Austin's study to Rep. Murphy. For comparison, we also showed Murphy a copy of Abilene’s 109-page engineering study; a study Irving Attorney Russell Bowman calls the “standard” for how these studies should be done.

“Clearly, these are in two different worlds,” Murphy said as he looked over Austin and Abilene’s studies last month. “This is not a sealed study. It does not identify the level of detail and it doesn’t seem to have any options."

Aside from College Station, Abilene, and Southlake, our research shows nearly every other city we got records from did what Austin did. Those cities performed assessments of each intersection, keyed in figures on the assessment sheet and provided those to us as their traffic engineering studies.

The only other city with a signed, sealed study that appears to meet the requirements of the engineering study was the city of Willis. Willis didn’t perform its engineering study until more than five years after installing its red light cameras and did so amid a lawsuit over its cameras, according to records provided to KXAN by the city.

Austin's Red Light Cameras

Since 2008, Austin’s cameras have issued 81,493 red light tickets, according to records provided by the city’s municipal court. Find out which cameras have caught the most red light runners.

App users tap here for the interactive map. 

Cities Could be Forced To Issue Refunds

The concern with those fighting cities like Austin in court is that those cities might be forced to repay the money it has collected one day. According to figures from the Texas Comproller's Office, cities have netted around $537 million from red light camera tickets since 2008.

We tried for nearly three weeks to have someone from the city of Austin’s Transportation Department interview with us as part of this investigation. For nearly three weeks, the city would not provide an interview.

The city’s transportation department sent us an email, defending the city’s position on its engineering study requirement of the red light camera law. Transportation spokeswoman, Cheyenne Krause, wrote in an Aug. 17 email: “The Austin Transportation Department completed a traffic engineering study, as required by state law, in 2008. Per section 1001.053 of the Texas Engineering Practices Act, a seal is not required if the project is a public work that does not involve electrical or mechanical engineering if the contemplated expense for the project is $20,000 or less.”

We wanted to see if the city installed the nine cameras without any sort of electrical or mechanical engineering, along with the cost of the project. We filed a formal request under the Texas Public Information Act on Aug. 22. On Sept. 6, the city turned over 26 pages to KXAN.

The 26 pages show engineering drawings from REDFLEX Traffic Systems, the company the city contracts with for its red light cameras. Each page contains an engineer’s seal and signature, indicating engineering work was performed as part of the design and installation of the city’s red light cameras.

The city told KXAN it did not have any records related to the "total cost of the design, engineering, planning, materials, equipment installed, labor costs, and construction" for any of the nine red light cameras, Austin Transportation Department employee Joana Perez wrote in a Sept. 7 email. The city claims it had nothing to do with the installation of those cameras and Redflex, the private camera company, installed the cameras on its own.

The documents appear to contradict the city’s Aug. 17 statement indicating that it did not need a signed, sealed traffic engineering study.

Russell Bowman, the Irving attorney who successfully sued the city of Richardson over its red light cameras, told KXAN, the city of Austin is “flat out mistaken,” in its interpretation of the Texas Engineering Practices Act.

Krause wrote in her email there’s evidence the city’s engineering assessments looked for alternatives to the red light cameras because, “…rather than recommend red light cameras at some locations, the study resulted in design and signal timing changes.”

After the Transportation Department denied our requests for an on camera interview to address the allegations, KXAN asked for an interview with Interim City Manager Elaine Hart. The city denied each request to interview Hart, who is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city.

Many of the cities that did not perform any type of study told KXAN they were “grandfathered” into the state’s 2007 red light camera law and were exempt from the traffic study if they signed a contract with a red light camera company before Sept. 1, 2007.

“There was no grandfathering of this law,” Rep. Murphy told KXAN. “Every red light camera in the state of Texas must have this study done."

Murphy explained the section of the law dealing with red light camera contracts is what many cities are confusing with a grandfather clause. The confusion comes from the section that states, "added by this Act, applies only to a contract entered into on or after the effective date of this Act.”

The Sept. 1, 2007 "grandfathered" date only applies to contracts, not the implementation of and operation of red light cameras, Bowman said. “The contracting of a red light camera program has absolutely nothing at all to do with how those cameras are operated and used to fine drivers,” Bowman said. “And, those attorneys those cities are hiring know that."

Bastrop, which once had a red light camera that collected $2.8 million in fines, hired a Fort Worth attorney to help the city defend itself in a lawsuit filed by people ticketed by red light cameras. The attorney, George Staples, wrote in an email response to KXAN that Bastrop and cities like it that signed contracts before Sept. 1, 2007 did not have to conduct a traffic engineering study. “I see no point in researching the history and determining whether 707.003 [the law] was followed or not followed. It is as irrelevant to me as confederate statues. I see no point to trying legal issues in the news media; my forte is the court room. It also pays better,” Staples wrote.

But the lack of an official traffic engineering study isn't the only part of the law cities haven't conformed to. The red light camera law requires that cities compile annual crash data for each intersection with a red light camera and turn those reports into the Texas Department of Transportation, which are then posted for the public to see.

We showed Murphy our analysis of TxDOT records that show 29 of the 59 red light camera cities have not consistently submitted annual reports to the state agency.

TxDOT records show the city of Austin didn’t submit annual reports for 2010 and 2012. KXAN requested those records but the city did not provide any documents for those years.

TxDOT's web site shows the city of Hutto, for example, never submitted any annual reports after it installed cameras in November 2009. Round Rock never submitted its 2011 or 2012 annual reports and the city of Diboll hasn't submitted any reports since 2011, TXDOT's accounting shows.

Even though the law requires the data to be filed with TxDOT, the agency says it doesn't have the authority to enforce cities to comply. "TxDOT’s role is to provide crash data and publish the red light camera reports," the agency wrote in an email.

“TxDOT’s supposed to get those reports so we can monitor: were they successful? Good data leads to good decisions. Right now it appears we’re not getting it on the front end, which makes it really hard to compare on the back end,” Murphy said.

After considering the results of what we uncovered in this KXAN investigation, Murphy said he’s going to do something about it in the next legislative session.

“I will suggest the folks in transportation they do some sort of an interim study on this and find out what the compliance issues are," said Murphy, "and be talking about putting some penalties in, some sanctions in or some relief in if people aren’t using these cameras as we designed them to be done."

As for the half-billion dollars collected in the last decade with these cameras, Murphy thinks cities could be facing some trouble for not having the authority to fine drivers this way.

“A lot of cities could potentially be on the hook for millions,” Barr asked the lawmaker.

“I think that could very well be the case,” Murphy said.

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