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Suffolk Democrats approve hiring contractor for red light camera study

Suffolk County Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) speaks

Suffolk County Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) speaks about red light camera safety before the legislature voted on the bill she sponsored to begin a six-month study of the camera program at the Suffolk County legislators meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2017. Photo Credit: Suffolk County Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) speaks about red light camera safety before the legislature voted on the bill she sponsored to begin a six-month study of the camera program at the Suffolk County legislators meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2017.

Suffolk Democrats approved hiring an outside contractor to study why injury accidents at nearly half the red-light camera intersections have gone up as Republicans called for the program to be suspended until a review is complete.

Bill sponsor Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said the county will spend $250,000 from its Traffic and Parking Violations Agency. The bill passed 11 to 6, with all Republicans voting against, and Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport) not present.

Anker said that although some intersections had seen an increase in accidents, the program shouldn’t be halted because data shows overall injury accidents had gone down.

“We agree there are issues with the red light camera program. We agree incidents of injury accidents have increased” at some locations, she said. “But to pull the rug out of this safety program is concerning.”

Anker’s bill surfaced after Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), the GOP caucus leader, introduced a bill this summer that would have suspended the county’s red light camera program beginning Jan. 1, pending a review of the program.

Without a legislative deadline to stop the program, he predicted the report would never be finished.

“Until we actually see what’s going on at red light camera intersections, the public really needs to be concerned out there,” McCaffrey said.

The bill requires the study to be conducted within 180 days, although the Department of Public Works Director Gilbert Anderson said the review would take a year. The red-light program generated $31 million for the county through $80 tickets in 2015.

Suffolk’s annual red-light camera report, released in July, showed injury crashes increased at 46 of 100 intersections where cameras are installed, compared to the 12 months before installation. Injury accidents at camera sites decreased 5 percent overall in 2015, but also showed that in the same year, rear-end collisions rose 30 percent.

The county report released in 2016 showed increases at 44 of the intersections with red-light cameras. The county Department of Public Works told Newsday at the time it would conduct a review of intersections where accidents increased, but never did because of staffing limitations and many of the intersections are controlled by New York State.

Suffolk’s chief engineer, William Hillman, told the legislature the department planned to read through all the accident reports at intersections to figure out how many accidents could be attributed to red-light cameras.

Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), a former Suffolk detective, said the police accident reports were often vague because drivers didn’t admit to being distracted or nervous when approaching intersections with cameras.

“This is clearly a waste of taxpayer money,” he said.

Alec Slatky, a representative for AAA Northeast, told lawmakers he supported Anker’s bill because of concerns in the accident data. For example, many intersections had few right-angle accidents in the years before the cameras were installed.

“There are legitimate concerns about how the red light cameras are being operated in Suffolk,” he said.

The Legislature will vote in November on appropriating the $250,000, Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory said.

The spending piece of the plan didn’t have the necessary 12 votes after Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) was taken to a hospital with chest plains. Hahn was alert and taken away “out of an abundance of caution,” Spencer said.

Critics of the red-light camera program have become a fixture at legislative committee meetings, where they allege that the program is a “money grab.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s administration and Democrats in the legislature have defended the program as aimed at improving public safety, and pointed to overall decreases in injury accidents as proof that the program has been effective.

Bellone supports Anker’s bill to study the safety, spokesman Jason Elan said.

In other action, the Suffolk Legislature did not vote on a bill that would have granted amnesty on late fees for unpaid parking and traffic tickets. Bill sponsor Spencer withdrew the plan but planned to bring it back next year, when there was more time to advertise the plan. He said the county estimated there are about $1 million in unpaid late fees.

Lawmakers also were considering joining a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to stop the federal government from dumping dredging material in the Long Island Sound.

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