Encinitas pulls the plug on red-light camera program

(Charlie Neuman)

The cameras that guard two major Encinitas intersections and collect photographic evidence of red-light runners for ticketing purposes will be coming down.

A split Encinitas City Council Wednesday, May 6, voted 3-2 not to renew the contract with camera provider Redflex, ending a program that’s operated for some 15 years. The current contract expires Wednesday, May 13.

Encinitas has sets of cameras at two El Camino Real intersections — one at Encinitas Boulevard and the other at Olivenhain Road and Leucadia Boulevard. The Encinitas Boulevard cameras were installed in 2005, and the ones at the other intersection went in a year earlier.

Councilman Joe Mosca, who voted along with Mayor Catherine Blakespear and Councilwoman Jody Hubbard to end the program, noted that city officials have been debating for years whether to keep the cameras. Encinitas should have pulled the plug long ago when it became evident that the cameras provide limited, if any, accident-prevention benefit, he said.

“Nothing has changed, and hundreds of people are still getting these ridiculous fines,” Mosca said, referring to the $490 court-set cost of a ticket.

Mosca said that most of the tickets aren’t going to people who drive straight through the intersection when the light turns red. Instead, the cameras typically catch drivers who either fail to come to a complete stop when making a right turn on a red light, or drivers who try to scoot through an intersection in the left-turn lane when the arrow is going from yellow to red. Instead of ticketing people, the city ought to be increasing the yellow period on the traffic lights and making other intersection changes, he said.

“The argument that Joe just made is pretty nuts,” responded Councilman Tony Kranz, who along with Councilwoman Kellie Shay Hinze opposed terminating the program.

Kranz said people who receive left-turn tickets know full well that the yellow time period is about to end as they drive up to the intersection and they say to themselves “I can beat” the red light. Increasing the length of the yellow won’t end that behavior, he said. Also, he said, people need to realize that failing to come to a complete stop when turning right puts pedestrians in crosswalks at risk of injury.

Sheriff’s deputies support the red-light camera program and that’s why he has done so ever since he became a councilman, Kranz said. A representative for the county Sheriff’s Department didn’t participate in Wednesday’s meeting, but in the past deputies have testified at city meetings that the cameras are a much better way of capturing violators than chasing down red-light runners in patrol cars.

Hinze said she had reservations about the company providing the cameras, but she was supporting extending the contract because the city’s Traffic and Public Safety Commission recently backed doing so. She proposed approving a one-year extension and making changes to the two intersections during that period, saying it would take time to rework the intersections as Mosca was suggesting. The council majority opposed her proposal.

Given the reduction in the number of people commuting to work during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s possible that the cameras now are capturing very few red-light violators, Hubbard said. Encinitas pays for the camera program through ticket revenue and the city could end up owing the camera company money if it extends the contract and there’s little traffic on the roadways generating ticket revenue, she said.

“The last thing I want to do is to be writing a check out of pocket for those cameras,” she said.

The city currently pays $10,200 a month for its camera contract with Redflex, and it also has additional expenses associated with issuing the tickets. The annual break-even revenue point is $209,000 and the city has achieved that figure and sometimes far exceeded it for at least the last six years, according to a city staff report.

Encinitas is one of only three cities in San Diego County that still use the cameras. Del Mar and Solana Beach also have red-light cameras, but cities that have ended their camera programs include Escondido, Oceanside, Poway, San Diego and Vista.

— Barbara Henry is a freelance writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune