Camera Cash

Traffic light surveillance


Do towns install red light cameras to protect people's lives, or are the devices, in the words of Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins, a scheme to "raise revenue under the guise of traffic law enforcement"? The latest American city to debate the question is Des Moines, where the police want to install several cameras around town.

According to the Des Moines Register, the city's pro-camera faction argues that the plan is "about safety, not money." Police Chief Judy Bradshaw told the Des Moines City Council in late July that cameras at high-risk intersections throughout the city will "have paid for themselves" in lives saved. Yet Des Moines police officials project that their new cameras could pay for themselves—and then some—in a more conventional way as well, with each camera bringing about $100,000 in annual revenue to the municipality.

One city councilman said he approved of the idea as long as it was "budget neutral." But other cities in the state have struggled to stick to budget neutrality once the cameras, which cost about $60,000 each, are up and running. According to the Sioux City Journal, nearby Davenport, Iowa, collected more than $1 million in revenue from 13 speeding and traffic light cameras between 2004 and 2007.