Transit officials push for more red light cameras

SFMTA says ‘capital crunch’ and dragging timelines make expanding the program cumbersome

City officials want more red light cameras installed to promote traffic and pedestrian safety, discourage dangerous driving behavior and save costs in the long term.

Red light cameras have helped cut red light-running-related crashes to about one-third of what they were at the program’s inception, according to data presented to the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, bringing last year’s total to around 300 injury collisions.

Despite that, there are currently only 19 active cameras at 13 locations citywide.

Members of the Board of Supervisors, who make up the Transportation Authority’s board, imagined what would be possible with a more robust program at Tuesday’s CTA meeting.

“When there’s only a handful of them they can be more limited in how they impact driver behavior,” Supervisor Matt Haney said, adding more cameras would lead drivers to believe most intersections had cameras and cause them to behave more prudently behind the wheel.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency overhauled the hardware last year with a $2.5 million upgrade, transitioning the technology from film-based to digital. It also plans to deploy another $2 million in capital funds to install cameras at another 8 locations, tentatively selected based on a high incidences of crashes caused by drivers blowing through red lights.

However, the new spotters won’t be up and running until the end of 2022, Ricardo Olea, SFMTA City Traffic Engineer said, as it takes roughly two years to take a camera from paper to street pole.

Olea likened the process to a capital project, requiring design, advertisements for bids, and a construction period, which is part of why the SFMTA uses cameras as its last resort when it comes to changing driving behavior at red lights.

Signal timing enhancements, improved signal visibility and other engineering options are tried first, alongside a more targeted approach from law enforcement.

SFMTA is currently working to re-time the entire City and implement other measures that can increase safety and calm traffic more quickly and using fewer resources.

“It’s a frustrating thing, but it’s much bigger than just the red light camera program,” Olea said of the slow-moving implementation timeline.

The Board of Supervisors called on SFMTA to double the number of red light cameras on San Francisco streets in 2019, a demand they doubled down on again Tuesday.

Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who represents San Francisco’s District 2, pressed specifically for a camera at Gough Street and Geary Boulevard, where one of her constituents died earlier this year after being struck by a speeding driver running a red light.

Supervisor Norman Yee asked for cameras on 19th Avenue or Ocean Avenue, both of which have been the site of many collissions involving speeding cars, and joined his colleagues in generally asking for a more widespread presence across The City.

However funding for more cameras remains thin, Olea said.

The bulk of the financing for implementation comes from tax allocations such as Prop K and the TNC tax, all of which have been compromised due to the shelter-in-place mandate and broader coronavirus economic crisis.

“We thank the voters for the sales tax and SFCTA for allocating those funds to us, but we now need much more than sales tax to keep up[…],” Olea said.

On the question of fee-generated revenues, Olea clarified that the money generated from citations does not qualify as a “windfall” for SFMTA. Instead, any money collected first goes through the court system and then is allocated to respective agencies.

From January to August of this year, a total of 6,126 automated enforcement citations were issued at these 13 locations, while the San Francisco Police Department issued just under 1,000 citations to drivers running red lights during the first half of this year as part of its “Focus on the Five” initiative to support traffic safety efforts through enforcement.

SFMTA receives about $1.4 million annually from the red light cameras, just enough to pay the vendor responsible for maintaining the technology, a program manager and a presence at the Police Department.

Those funds do not cover upgrades, which instead comes from capital funding, as does the cost of installation, which runs at about $250,000 per new camera.

“We are having a capital crunch at SFMTA,” he said. “We see it as a balanced approach in the sense that there is this program, but we also have other programs that are necessary as well.”

Running a red light has historically been the third most common cause of injury crashes, accounting for 8.6 percent of all crashes from July 2015 to July 2020, behind speeding and failing to yield to pedestrians.

The majority of collisions involve only vehicles, but a collective 20 percent involve vehicles striking either pedestrians or bicycles. Last year alone, 24 people were hit, 20 by a vehicle and 4 by a bike running a red light, only two fewer than the last peak in 2013.

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