For Minneapolis, red means green

By Eliot Brown

At last check, the Minneapolis police were not walking door to door in North Minneapolis, demanding $140 donations to pay for their salaries. But perhaps it's time they start. In its initial four months, Photo Cop, the system of red light cameras in Minneapolis, has brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars in traffic citations. And most of it, apparently, is coming from the city's low-income wards.

Since the program started on July 7, Photo Cop has chalked up more than 18,000 citations, ensnaring anyone caught driving illegally in one of 12 marked intersections around the city.

At $142 a pop, with $53.60 going to City Hall, the revenue adds up quickly. Lt. Greg Reinhardt, the coordinator of the program, expects around a $200,000 to $300,000 surplus after expenses. So far, however, the cameras have been catching more drivers than initially expected.

While the city asserts that the cameras were sited in high-accident zones, the fines are likely hitting poorer communities especially hard. Nine out of the twelve cameras sit at high-volume intersections within poorer neighborhoods or at their edges. According to 2000 U.S. Census data, average family incomes in these districts stand below $45,000.

Minneapolis councilman Robert Lilligren, whose 8th Ward hosts four of the twelve cameras, champions the Photo Cop as a safety device. "The one message that I heard consistently--that I heard throughout the ward--was 'We want greater traffic enforcement,'" he says. And he suggests that many of those receiving citations for running lights along these busy thoroughfares are drivers from outside the district.

Cities across the nation seem to be turning to red-light cameras in order to cover their bills, with some in California charging a gut-wrenching $350 for a first-time violation. San Diego, for instance, issues tickets of $321 for anyone caught by camera in an intersection, raking in millions each year for the city. That program ran into some trouble in 2001 when it was found that Lockheed-Martin, the administrator for the intersection cameras, had moved sensors in the road to effectively shorten the yellow light time--a move Lockheed made without notifying the city.

Lockheed, which received a $70 cut for every fine issued, had far more incentive to boost tickets than does subcontractor Redflex Traffic Systems here in Minneapolis, which receives a flat rate from the city.

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