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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

City extends contract with controversial red-light camera company

Wilmington contracts with American Traffic Solutions (ATS), a company that had no license to operate in North Carolina but did so, a state engineering board investigation in 2018 concluded. (Port City Daily photo/File)

WILMINGTON —- Wilmington City Council voted unanimously to extend its contract with a company that operated in violation of state law to oversee its red-light camera program.

The most recent contract term lasted just one year; this week, through a consent agenda item approved Tuesday, the city entered a four-year, seven-month agreement with American Traffic Solutions (ATS).

Related: Wilmington city council extends contract with red-light company that’s still in violation of state law

The red-light program nets the city $1 million in annual revenue, 90% of which is routed to New Hanover County Schools. New Hanover County and the city pay the company $180,000 each, in addition to remitting 10% of the program’s revenue back to ATS, bringing the company’s total annual payments to $460,000.

Each traffic fine is $50. The city issues roughly 20,000 citations through the program each year, with about an 80% collection rate. Each citation goes through “human eyes” first; they aren’t automatically issued with each photo snapped, the city’s traffic engineer told Port City Daily in 2017.

In November 2018, the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors (NCBELS) wrapped up a months-long investigation into ATS. The professional oversight board found the company provided Wilmington with engineering plans for 13 red-light camera locations without being licensed to operate in North Carolina; engineering without a license in N.C. is a crime.

After being notified of NCBELS’ ruling, the city’s attorney said it did not impact the legality of the program. The attorney explained the city’s position that the ruling concerned the placement of poles and would have no impact on the operation of cameras.

Twenty-four states use red-light cameras. The practice is illegal in 10.

Lawsuits frequently bubble up against local governments, challenging the legality of the process, with large cities paying out major amounts to refund illegally collected tickets in recent years.

Common questions that surround the use of the citation generators include the fairness of yellow-light timing, which is based on what many argue is an outdated formula, and whether the privatization of law enforcement is constitutional.

Government proponents of the technology tout its apparent benefits.

“These costs are well justified by the prevention of crashes, reduction of crash injuries, saving of lives, property damage reduction, and time saved in law enforcement personnel not having to conduct crash reports, investigations, and court proceedings,” according to a city memo on the extension of the ATS contract.

According to city emails, ATS initially proposed “unlimited” one-year extensions in its contract. City officials removed this language, instead opting for the option of three one-year extensions or month-to-month services once the contract period wraps up.

In October, city officials discussed the possibility of relocating some existing red-light camera sites to more effectively reduce “angle crashes,” caused by drivers running red lights and crashing perpendicular into the angle of vehicles traveling through green lights. ATS vendors told city leaders they were working to compile a list of recommendations after analyzing crash data.

This week the city opted to extend ATS’ contract based on its “historical performance,” city manager Sterling Cheatham wrote in a memo. The company recently assuaged the council’s concerns by promising to install all-new equipment, Cheatham wrote, “including new structural foundations at all locations that will be designed and sealed by a North Carolina-licensed professional engineer.”

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