What started as an effort to crack down on red light runners has turned into a potential cash cow for Colorado Springs city government.
Last week, in a budget discussion, the City Council agreed to consider doubling the size of the city's recently created Intersection Safety Program -- a program that highlights cracking down on motorists running red lights.
Now in its second year, the red light project has generated more than $500,000 in fines during a four-month period this year alone. The mandatory minimum fines of $100 are used to pay for the program, and any additional money reverts back to the city's general fund.
"There's not one question that this is having an effect," said Councilman Lionel Rivera, who spearheaded the program last year along with Police Chief Loren Kramer after police underscored the problem of red light runners in Colorado Springs.
Rivera noted that, during its four-month pilot launch last year, police statistics showed a six percent reduction in the number of crashes at monitored intersections than the year before.
Between January 1 and April 30 this year, the program has also generated $550,413 in fines representing 4,359 tickets for red light running, as well as fines levied for other traffic violations ranging from speeding to driving without proof of insurance.
"It's a mere coincidence that it's generating money," Rivera said.
The program, originally named the Red Light Running Program, originally consisted of three motorcycle patrolmen posted at intersections around the city. The program has since been renamed the Intersection Safety Program to de-emphasize the focus on red light runners.
"The people in this city know there is a traffic problem, and I think they appreciate what we are doing here," said Colorado Springs Police Sgt. Janet McDonald, one of the coordinators of the program,
The program has consisted of three teams of motorcycle patrolmen -- three to each team -- that monitor heavily traveled intersections and crack down on traffic miscreants around the city.
"People in Colorado Springs seem to think that red means three more cars [can go through]. And it really doesn't," McDonald said. People, she said, can be counted on to come up with creative excuses for running reds.
"Invariably, people will say the light was yellow ... even though it wasn't even close. We hear every excuse in the book, from 'I have to go to the bathroom' to 'I wasn't paying attention.' "
McDonald said officers are posted at the city's top ten most dangerous intersections, though she declined to identify them, claiming the information might compromise the program.
However, those intersections have been repeatedly publicly identified by the Colorado Springs Police Department, and CSPD Deputy Chief Pat McElderry said other areas of the city are also being monitored.
"Even though we do have nine officers," McElderry said, "those officers can't have as much of a city-wide impact as we would like."
Deputy Chief Luis Velez believes doubling the number of officers in each district could increase the reduction in number of traffic crashes at busy intersections by another six percent.
Follow the money
Doubling the size of the program would also likely increase the amount of money that the city generates with the hefty traffic fines.
"Although we don't like to talk about revenue with traffic safety programs, there is a mandatory $100 fine for red light runners," McElderry said. "And with our high conviction rate [over 90 percent], there is revenue associated with the program."
Velez estimated that the initial cost for outfitting the nine officers was approximately $700,000, including about a half million for salaries and another $200,000 in one-time equipment costs.
"This team easily generates enough money to pay for itself," McElderry said, noting the half-million plus that was generated in the first four months of this year alone.
And, police and the City Council are touting a recently revised rule that allows people to simply mail in their fines, instead of a required court appearance that resulted in a strain on the municipal court system.
With the court appearance requirement gone, Rivera estimated at least $200,000 could be generated over and above the cost of the program. Council will make a final decision on whether to double the program during the next couple months of discussions on ways to increase the city's budget.
Top 10 most dangerous city intersections
1. Academy Boulevard and Highway 83
2. Academy Boulevard and Austin Bluffs Parkway
3. Academy Boulevard and Platte Avenue
4. Academy Boulevard and Airport Road
5. Platte Avenue and Circle Drive
6. Nevada Avenue and Platte Avenue
7. Nevada Avenue and Cimarron Street
8. Nevada Avenue and Southgate Road
9. Interstate 25 and Woodmen Road
10. Interstate 25 and Garden of the Gods Road
An updated list of the 25 most dangerous traffic sites in Colorado Springs will be released within the next two or three weeks. The current list is posted at coloradosprings.com/police.