On Saturday, Arlington residents voted by a healthy 59-41 margin to ban the city's red-light cameras, which was surprising only in that there are 10,808 people in Arlington who apparently like red light cameras. The real questions are: When are the cameras coming down; when is the vendor, American Traffic Solutions, going to sue; and what, if anything, will Arlington have to pay to get out of its contract with ATS?
The first question is the easy one. The anti-red light camera referendum, which took the form of an amendment to the city's charter, will presumably take effect once the election results are canvassed by the City Council. Under state law, election results must be canvassed between eight and 11 calendar days after the election. According to its calendar, the Arlington City Council will canvass Saturday's results on May 19 though, just to be on the safe side, you should wait probably wait until May 20 to start blowing through red lights. Arlington spokesman Reginald Lewis says rather cryptically that the council will "direct any further action on this topic."
The second question is slightly more complex. According to the FAQ Arlington published in the lead-up to the election, ATS signed a 15-year contract with ATS on January 10, 2007, that gives the company $58,000 per camera per year. (The wording of the contract is more complicated and says that the contract lasts five years after the installation of the 10th camera and can be renewed by the city manager for two three-year periods, but for our back-of-napkin calculations we'll go with the city's figure of 15 years). Arlington currently has 23 cameras, which equates to annual remittance to ATS of $1.3 million per year, or about $8.5 million over the remaining life of the contract.
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ATS no doubt wants that money and could go to court to get it. That's what the company did in Houston after voters there banned red-light cameras in 2010, suing for $25 million in damages. It ultimately settled with the city for $4.8 million. Baytown, which also banned red-light cameras in 2010, settled with ATS for $1 million.
Not that a lawsuit is automatic. Other Texas cities, like League City and Conroe, have managed to take down red-light cameras without being sued for damages (though in both cases the city's have delayed removal of the cameras to comply with the terms of the contract). ATS' most aggressive legal efforts tend to be aimed at preempting popular votes by challenging the legality of referendums. Indeed, the company seemed to be behind Arlington resident Jody Weiderman's February lawsuit unsuccessfully seeking to block Saturday's election. Failing that, the company wages an aggressive campaign to defeat the ballot measures. In Arlington, the company backed a $55,000 campaign to keep the cameras.
There's some irony in the notion that a measure conceived of and pushed by Tea Party activists could wind up costing Arlington taxpayers several million dollars. Then again, the City Council had every opportunity to sense the mood of the electorate and end the program in a more fiscally responsible manner. Or, in the words of organizer Kelly Canon, "The city should have never entered into an agreement to begin with."
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.