Houston’s Red Light Cameras Are Off for Good, Legal Battle Continues

In a thirteen-to-one decision Houston council members voted to do away with red light cameras and break the city's contract with American Traffic Solutions, the private company responsible for operating and maintaining the cameras. The cameras have been switched off before. This time, it appears, they are off permanently.

The cameras have become a hot button political issue and the subject of a lengthy, and potentially costly legal battle for Houston.  The cameras were first shut off last November following a referendum in which 52.3 percent of voters opposed the camera program.  But just days later, ATS won a court ruling that found that public vote invalid and the cameras came back on.

The contract with ATS was set to run until 2014. After the referendum, the city asked a federal court to determine how much should be owed to ATS. The camera vendor is currently seeking $25 million in damages.  Houston Mayor Annise Parker, however, disputes this amount and calls it completely ludicrous.

It’s not exactly clear why Houstonians were against the cameras in the November referendum, but one prominent criticism was the claim the program was merely a revenue generating exercise for the city. The cameras brought in $10 million a year. The referendum result came as something of a surprise because polling before election day showed citizen support for the cameras.

Michael Kubosh wasn't surprised. The local bail bondsman spearheaded the citizen’s campaign against the cameras. He often worked with people who received red light tickets to contest the charges and was on hand Wednesday when the final city council vote was passed. "Thank God they finally did it today. It looked like they were going to waffle, it looked like they were going to kick the can down the road some more. But I guess they just got tired of it."

Just one councilmember, Sue Lovell, voted to keep the program. She argued the city should accept a settlement offer from ATS and thus avoid the possibility of having to pay millions of dollars in damages for breaking their contract. That proposal would have kept the cameras through 2013. "We're not going to walk away with this with zero damages; we're going to have some debt. And no matter what the debt is, it's going to put us in a situation of making tough decisions."  Lovell said her plan would prevent layoffs resulting from the loss of revenue.  Her council members were unconvinced.

The council vote repeals the original law authorizing the cameras. Mayor Annise Parker says it is now illegal for the city to operate them and added that is not the only thing that's against the law. "For those who may be celebrating the fact that the red light cameras are now turned off, it is illegal to run a red light."

The city's legal department sent a letter to ATS instructing them to turn the cameras off. ATS officials say they'll continue to pursue litigation against the city.