El Mirage officials claim photo-enforcement cameras they installed on U.S. 60 (Grand Avenue) last year to catch red-light runners and speeders was all about safety, not revenue.
During a 2011 interview with Fox 10, Mayor Lana Mook said cars always were screeching to a stop at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Primrose Street, which is within view of her office window.
Cars screeching to a stop? Okay.
But city officials are supposed to justify the need for the cameras, according to an agreement they have with the Arizona Department of Transportation, the state agency that grants individual cities permits needed to put photo-enforcement cameras on state highways.
ADOT doesn't have any traffic reports from El Mirage. And city officials have refused New Times' repeated requests for copies of the traffic studies and crash data they were supposed to provide to ADOT.
No matter -- we obtained police officials' e-mails that show that between July 1, 2008 and June 30, 2011, there were 39 traffic collision at the Grand/Primrose intersection before the cameras were installed.
The e-mails raise questions about whether safety is really at issue.
Of the 39 reported collisions, 30 were non-injury accidents. Five others caused "non-incapacitating" injuries to those involved. And three others caused "possible injury." One is listed as "blank."
Other city documents show that between 35,000 and 44,000 vehicles daily travel along Grand Avenue, including through the city's stretch of the state highway that leads to places like Wickenburg and Las Vegas.
Even assuming the low end of that estimate, that's nearly 13 million cars a year passing through El Mirage.
Or, that's about 39 million cars moving through that intersection over that three-year period when there were 39 collisions -- 30 of which caused no injuries to those involved.
During that time, there was a 0.0001 percent chance of getting into a car accident at the intersection. And the chances were infinitesimal of getting into an injury accident.
The statistics are the type of ammunition anti-photo-enforcement advocates would use to make a case for shutting down El Mirage's cameras -- because, how can the city claim with a straight face that cameras are there to make the intersection safer?
Photo-enforcement cameras have not been popular in Arizona.
In fact, after installing cameras aimed at catching speeders in 2008 on state freeways and highways, Arizona officials caved to mounting public pressure and shut down that photo-enforcement program in 2010.
Some live cameras remain peppered throughout the state in cities such as Tucson, Show Low, Prescott Valley, and Globe. And, of course, El Mirage's camera on U.S. 60, or Grand Avenue.
These cities are supposed to justify that they need the cameras, and ADOT grants permission for cities to dig up the roadway to install them.
But if city officials haven't provided a crash study to ADOT, why were the cameras installed?
ADOT tells New Times that they have no traffic studies or crash reports from El Mirage. And, again, El Mirage has ignored repeated requests for the information.
El Mirage officials did tells us that Redflex, the for-profit company that installs these cameras, has the data.
Redflex wouldn't return our calls, but a message on their voice mail advises callers that they do not maintain city-specific data and directs them back to the city.
Tim Tait, a spokesman for ADOT, told us earlier that El Mirage officials told ADOT during a meeting they had the traffic information and that they said the intersection was a public-safety concern.
ADOT, Tait says, leaves the decision to install cameras to catch speeders or red-light runners up to individual cities.
"It's a local public safety issue," he says.
There are two problems with ADOT's position.
1) That is not what the written agreement between ADOT and El Mirage states, and 2) e-mails between the city and the state agency show that those studies are "required."
El Mirage officials have to "provide the proper documentation to ADOT for justification of photo enforcement based on an adverse crash history and other necessary information," according to the agreement.
In turn, ADOT's traffic-engineering group will "review current ... speed studies, crash history reports...and other detailed reports that verify the necessity of the proposed photo-enforcement system submitted by the City."
E-mail exchanges between ADOT and El Mirage in July 2011, when the cameras were about to go up on Grand Avenue, show that ADOT put on hold the city's permit -- effectively stopping Redflex from installing the cameras.
El Mirage's request for the cameras "require[s] statistics (crash data, volumes, etc.) to justify final implementation," wrote Sintra Hoffman, ADOT's intergovernmental affairs manager, on July 7, 2011.
She said the permit would be halted, in part, because of a "lack of required statistics from the City.
"If the City wishes to move forward with this permit, please provide the required statistics..." Hoffman continued.
Then, just as quickly as ADOT pulled the permit from El Mirage, it apparently gave it back and the red-light/speed cameras were installed.
Unfortunately, none of the e-mails we have in hand explains why the permit was restored. Not surprisingly, El Mirage isn't answering questions.
ADOT officials are researching the issue and say they will get back to us.
The situation is as mysterious as the reasons behind El Mirage City Manager Spencer Isom single-handedly decided to shut down the portion of the cameras that catch red-light runners.
Were they shut down because there has been an increase in the number of rear-end accidents? Based on the three-year traffic collision report, 23 of the 39 accidents at the intersection were rear-end collisions. And that's before drivers had to worry about getting flashed by the cameras.
Isom has refused to provide any detailed answers, saying only that city cops will monitor intersections for red-light runners.
But that contradicts what Mayor Mook told Fox 10 in that August 2011 interview. The mayor said part of the reason for the cameras was to free up police officers to handle other goings-on in the city.
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