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NJ Red Light Cameras to Shut Down Unless State Renews Program

5-Year Pilot Program Comes to End This December, No Bill Introduced to Continue It
Red Light Camera
Officials say this red light camera in New Brunswick will soon be taken down, as NJ's pilot program comes to an end. Charlie Kratovil

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The five-year pilot program that caused the installation of automated "red light camera" systems at 76 intersections in New Jersey is set to expire this December if legislators don't take action to continue it.

New Brunswick is one of the 25 municipalities in New Jersey that was approved to use the cameras.  The city currently has only one system, located at the intersection of Easton Avenue and Park Boulevard.

City officials have said it will be taken down later this year to accomodate construction at that intersection, but county officials said the road project will not start until Spring 2015.

By then, it will be more clear whether or not the cameras may be re-installed, depending on whether the State Senate, Assembly, and Governor opt to renew the program, which expires December 16.

MAYOR CAHILL: NEW BRUNSWICK CAMERAS "GOING TO GO AWAY"

In his first sit-down interview with New Brunswick Today, Mayor Cahill maintained a degree of neutrality on the mattter, but confirmed that the city's red light camera system will soon be a thing of the past.

"Our red light camera is going to go away... When the one on Easton Avenue goes, I don't see an anxiousness to replace it, either there or at another location," said Cahill.

"I am not sold that it's a great tool, nor am I one of the folks that think they're the worst thing that came aboard.  A lot depends on location," the 23-year incumbent Mayor said.

During its three years of operation, the cameras have generated $1,333,916 in revenue for the city, though the program has been shown to be unpopular among the general public.

Two different companies that operate the state's red light camera systems, RedFlex and American Traffic Solutions.

RedFlex, which recently saw its former CEO and other officials indicted in a bribery scandal, operates the New Brunswick camera system.

Last month, an NJ.com poll showed that 89% of respondents supported ending the program, which was approved by a 49-25 vote of the NJ Assembly and a 22-11 vote of the NJ State Senate before then-Governor Jon Corzine signed it into law in early 2008.

A TALE OF TWO EGANS 

Cahill's running mate Kevin Egan, who serves as the City Council Vice President and lives in the neighborhood closest to the city's red light camera system, voiced metered opposition to the red light camera program.

"As someone who has received a red light camera ticket, I would probably want them taken down. But, I don't know the situation that well", the Council Vice President stated at City Council meeting.

Both Cahill and Egan are facing no opposition in their election campaigns for additional four-year terms in office.

At the time the pilot program was approved, Egan's father Assemblyman Joseph Egan, who also lives in the Buccleuch Park neighborhood, was one of the 49 "yes" votes in 2008.  The elder Egan also served as a City Council member when they voted to approve the installation of the camera system on Easton Avenue.

Assemblyman Egan's office told New Brunswick Today that the Assemblyman was out of town, and unable to comment.  State Senator Bob Smith, one of 22 "yes" votes for the pilot program, also did not respond to inquiries.

The younger Egan, who replaced his father on the City Council in 2011, told New Brunswick Today, "I think New Brunswick is not alone in the problems with red light cameras, and people fighting them all over.  There are definitely some issues there that are being raised about the red light people, and I'd say, 'stay tuned.'"

MIDDLESEX COUNTY HAS SECOND-MOST CAMERAS IN NJ

Middlesex County currently has a total of 15 cameras, second only to Essex County. In addition to New Brunswick's system, Piscataway has six camera systems, Woodbridge has four, Edison has three, and East Brunswick has one. 

Some state representatives, including at least one who represents New Brunswick, still support the program and want to see it renewed.

Joe Egan's longtime running mate, Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula, said he voted to support the pilot program five years ago, though records list him as "Not Voting."

In a phone interview, Chivukula stated that, if data showed the red light cameras increased public safety, he would support renewing it.

"We are waiting for the data... I want to make sure that it runs through the course, and see if it gets all the data that is necessary," said Chivukula.  "If it is improves the public safety, I think we should continue it."

Chivukula told New Brunswick Today that he felt those who opposed the red light camera could be better served by education on the public and motor vehicle safety, and the what he felt were the benefits of the program.

"Education is not there, a lot of people are not aware of it.  They are listening to certain opinions of [the red light cameras] being a revenue-maker."

But Chivukula may not have a direct say in whether or not the program is renewed, because he was recently appointed to a position by Governor Chris Christie that would force him to leave elected office if his nomination is approved.

Chivukula, an engineer by trade, also said that placing the red light cameras near universities and hospitals, such as was done in New Brunswick, makes sense: "If you are putting it near hospitals and if you are putting it near universities where there is a lot of pedestrian traffic, I think you are ensuring the safety."

The NJ Hospitals Association recently pulled out of an advocacy group formed by Redflex and American Traffic Solutions, according to The Auditor.

TWO OF FOUR PILOT PROGRAM BILL'S SPONSORS WENT TO PRISON

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a legislator from Middlesex County who chairs the Assembly Transportation committee, was one of the four orignal sponors of the bill, which passed in 2007.  Two of those original sponsors were later jailed after federal convictions for corruption.

In 2009, then-Senator Joseph Coniglio (D-Bergen) was sentenced to 21 and a half years for fraud and extortion, for redirecting $1 million in state grants to Hackensack University Hospital in exchange for $100,000 in consulting fees. 

In 2011, former Assemblyman and Perth Amboy Mayor Joseph Vas faced a six and a half year sentence for a total of nine corruption charges. 

When asked by The Star-Ledger if he planned to push for a continuation of the program, Wisniewski said he would not only support the red light camera program, but push for cameras that would issue tickets for speeding in certain areas as well.

"People driving too fast in construction zones put workers’ lives in danger," Wisniewski said.  "People going too fast in school zones put children’s lives in danger. No doubt about it."

But, nevertheless, no one in either chamber of the state legislature has introduced a bill to renew the program as of yet.

"I know that there are [legislators] who believe that this program is worthwhile because it does promote traffic safety," Wisniewski told NJ.com's The Auditor.  "That being said, I’m not aware of anyone who’s yet come forward and said let me sponsor the bill."

According to campaign finance records, both companies who operate red light cameras in NJ made multiple donations to Wisniewski's political campaigns. 

Redflex contributed $500 to Wisniewski in a 2009 campaign and another $750 in 2011. American Traffic Solutions had donated a total of $4,350 to Wisniewski between 2010 and 2013.

Other legislators felt differently.

In July, Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon introduced legislation that would limit the capability of the red light camera. New Jersey license plates beloning to cars that had run a red light would not be submitted to a national photo ticketing database system. 

"New Jersey should not be complicit in that effort, essentially cooperating with a government that is intentionally stealing from our residents," O’Scanlon told the Newark Star-Ledger.

A similar bill, which O'Scanlon was involved with, Assembly Bill 1132, would have "repealed traffic control signal monitoring system pilot program", and "prohibit future use of red light cameras in the State".

The bill had been introduced to the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee, where it had yet to make any further progress.

Assemblyman Sean T. Kean, another member of the transportation committee, and a co-sponsor of  A-1132, had voiced his opposition of the red light camera program to New Brunswick Today. 

"This program... has falsely accused many New Jerseyans of running red lights and causing other motor vehicle violations", Kean stated in an email.

"A person charged with violating a motor vehicle law should have the opportunity to confront his or her accuser."

IF A RED LIGHT CAMERA BILL IS PASSED, GOVERNOR MAY VETO

Chris Christie threw his own opinion into the debate, stating in a news conference that he was leaning towards not approving the renewal of the red light camera program if the legislature passes such a bill.

"I've said over time that I have concerns about the system," he said last month.

In response to a question asked on NJ101.5's "Ask The Governor" radio program, Christie elaborated on his position, further distancing himself from the cameras.

“If you’re going to have a pilot program, you have to let the program go to its end and then evaluate the data when you get there. As we’re beginning to gather the data, as we’re getting near the end of the red-light camera pilot, I see some real disturbing things,” Christie said.

"I will tell you that my gut feel on this one is that I don’t favor [red light cameras.]"

Still, he defended his decision to keep the program going for his nearly five years in office: "I wanted the pilot to continue, but I never took a position as to whether we would continue it after the pilot... As we get to the end of the pilot, I have more and more concerns about the program based upon the data that’s being presented to me.”