The Fort Lee Mayor and Council heard an extended sales pitch at their most recent executive session from a company that wants to be the borough’s provider of red light camera enforcement services.
American Traffic Solutions (ATS) is the largest vendor of red light cameras in the country and the largest in New Jersey, according to attorney Paul Kaufman, who represented ATS at the meeting last Thursday.
“Right now they have about 60 percent of the market, including Maryland, New York City, Washington, D.C. [and] Philadelphia,” Kaufman told the borough’s governing body. “When the New York State Legislature opened it up last year to outside of New York City, ATS got the award everywhere—Nassau County, Syracuse, Rochester, Albany.”
Kaufman, who said the company currently works with 17 municipalities in New Jersey—12 of which are fully operational—went on to explain to the mayor and council how the program works.
“It mounts cameras [at intersections],” he said. “It records people who are running the red lights. It is statutorily permitted under the laws of New Jersey at this point. It’s also by borough ordinance; it doesn’t need county approval. And the revenue cost to the borough is zero.”
Kaufman said in fact the only cost to the borough is that of the time of a police officer.
“It has to be a law enforcement officer,” he said. “A lot of times, if they see the volume, they’ll hire a special [for] $38,000 to $40,000 [a year]. But when you’re making $400,000 a year from an intersection, it more than pays the cost.”
Business Development Director for American Traffic Solutions Charles Callari was also on hand at the meeting to explain the technology and the service his company provides, telling the mayor and council that sensing devices embedded in the road pick up the movement of approaching cars and trigger cameras mounted 75 to 150 feet from the street at an intersection. The cameras capture an “A shot,” when all four of the car’s tires are completely behind the stop line, a “B shot,” when the vehicle is driving through the intersection, a short video clip and a close-up of the car’s license plate.
“So you have three elements of proof,” Callari said. “All of that data is captured on a hard drive then sent via a wireless network to our network operations facility in Arizona, where a customer service operator keys in the license plate number. We interface directly with … the national law enforcement technology center for accessing motor vehicle records. We get the record back, we create the record in our database, the police department accesses it through a web-based software program …. and pulls up the workload. They review the elements of proof, they look at the A shot, the B shot, the close-up, the cropped out license plate, the video, and of course, most importantly, they have all the information there regarding the owner of the vehicle.”
The state-imposed fine for a red light violation is $85 issued to the owner—or whoever was driving the car at the time of the violation if an affidavit is filed acknowledging such—and the offender receives a summons in the mail, including the “evidence”—the A and B shots and license plate picture. Offenders can then pay online if they choose to, according to Kaufman and Callari.
Forty-six dollars of the $85 fine goes to the municipality, $27.50 goes to the county if the county opts into the program—if it doesn’t, $73.50 goes to the municipality—and $11.50 goes to the state regardless of whether the infraction occurred on a state, county or municipal roadway.
Kaufman and Callari estimated that out of the 17 participating municipalities in New Jersey, about half of the corresponding counties are participating along with them.
“There are no points, no surcharge and it doesn’t show up on a motor vehicle abstract,” Callari said. “In the 12 months that this program has been operational … the collection rate is the highest in the history of motor vehicle violations [about 83 percent].”
Citing the results of test analysis at an intersection on Broad Ave. in Palisades Park—the closest municipality to Fort Lee that has signed on with ATS—“It should be generating somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,100 to 1,500 summonses a month [per intersection]. In actual dollars, from a collection standpoint, they’ll probably average somewhere between $75,000 to $125,000 a month gross.”
Kaufman and Callari said the “client,” or municipality, can pay the company in one of two ways: a flat fee of $19,000 per month per intersection—“but if for any reason you don’t generate enough money in terms of the fines, you pay less,” Kaufman said—or on a sliding scale based on volume—the lower the gross, the higher the percentage. There are no start-up costs, and the company installs, operates and maintains the program.
Fort Lee Councilman Jan Goldberg asked Kaufman and Callari this: If people know the cameras are there, over time, won’t the amount of violations—and therefore the anticipated revenue—go down?
“We would absolutely hope so,” Kaufman said, adding that ATS puts up signs at the intersections so drivers are aware of the cameras. “We want to change driver behavior, but that’s what’s unique about New Jersey. There’s this extraordinary volume that we have that feeds our roadways. After one year of operation, each town is down about 30 to 50 percent, but their volume is still so high, they’re generating revenue.”
Kaufman and Callari said the DOT makes the final determination as to where the municipality can put the red light enforcement cameras, but also said the company works with the borough and the police department to identify intersections where the technology will be most effective.
In response to a question from a member of the public after Kaufman and Callari had made their pitch and left the meeting, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich said the funds collected from the program would go into General Funds.
Fort Lee resident Keith Jensen, who followed Kaufman and Callari into the hallway outside Borough Hall’s conference room after they exited the meeting, later told Sokolich he knows people in Arizona who have learned ways to skirt the fines resulting from red light camera enforcement programs there.
“The way around it in Arizona, from what I understand, is that if you contest it in court, because there’s no police officer that took it, the person always wins,” Jensen said. “And when I asked the guys [in the hallway] if that’s the case here, they said, ‘We can’t speak to the legal ramifications of any state.’”
“That means yes,” said Sokolich, who earlier in the meeting had said, “What we lose in manpower because of costs and programs of attrition, we’re trying to consider how to make up for it with today’s technology. We also don’t want to turn Fort Lee into the ticket capitol of the world.”