PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence collected $3.2 million in fines during the first year of its controversial school-zone speed camera program, despite a botched rollout that resulted in thousands of tickets being dismissed, a massive class-action lawsuit and changes to state law.
Even after the city pays the private company that operates the portable cameras $1.3 million and finishes shelling out close to $500,000 in legal fees and refunds related to the lawsuit, Providence will have netted just under $1.5 million in revenue from violations issued between January and December of last year, according to a Target 12 review of city records.
The city’s profit is more than the Elorza administration projected in each of its last two budgets, but the program has not been the cash cow some predicted following an initial burst of violations that saw more than 12,000 tickets issued – at $95 a pop – from five cameras in the first 33 days of use. In December, 15 cameras generated 8,890 tickets, which came with fines of $50 each.
In order to offer a complete overview of Providence’s speed camera program in its first year, Target 12 submitted multiple public records requests to several city departments, including asking for a month-by-month breakdown of fines issued between January and December by camera location.
Target 12 also requested the amount speeding drivers paid in 2018 as well as the amount invoiced by Conduent State & Local Solutions Inc., the company that oversees the program. We then reviewed federal court records and city expenditures to determine how much the lawsuit cost the city.
Our findings show:
- Providence generated 63,267 violations between January and December.
- The city brought in $3.2 million in fines, a collection rate of above 60%.
- Conduent State & Local Solutions invoiced the city for $1.3 million.
- The city is in the process of issuing just under 15,000 refunds – $20 each – to drivers who were part of a class-action lawsuit challenging multiple facets of the speed camera program.
- The city paid attorneys for the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit $75,000. It also paid its own outside legal counsel, Greenberg Traurig, LLP, nearly $100,000 to negotiate a settlement on the lawsuit.
- Providence Municipal Court dismissed 4,062 tickets, the majority of which came as a result of printing errors on the first batch of violations.
- Cars passed by the 15 camera locations nearly 4 million times between September and last month. During the same period, 40,000 violations or warnings were issued.
Last January, Providence became the first municipality in Rhode Island to take advantage of the Automated School-Zone-Speed-Enforcement System Act, a state law enacted in 2016 that allows cities and towns to install traffic cameras within a quarter-mile of any type of school and fine all drivers caught traveling at least 11 miles per hour over the posted speed limit.
To run the program, the city selected Maryland-based Conduent, the same company that has long managed Providence’s red-light camera system. (The company is a subsidiary of a New Jersey-based corporation that was formerly a division of Xerox.)
The Elorza administration faced widespread criticism following the first month of the program, with residents claiming they weren’t properly informed about the cameras and state lawmakers accusing the city of preying on drivers. But the mayor stood by the program, predicting other communities would soon follow Providence.
“I do anticipate this is going to be a statewide thing, so I think it behooves us to get this right as this begins to expand throughout the state,” Elorza said last March.
Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare eventually acknowledged the city made mistakes during the first phase of the program, but he urged the General Assembly to fix the law, not repeal it.
“Don’t throw out a good program that is going to protect our kids,” Pare told the House Judiciary Committee last April, noting that violations at one camera location were already down 75% from January.
In the end, lawmakers allowed the city to keep the cameras, lowering the fine to $50 and requiring that tickets only be issued on days school is in session. They also forced communities to implement longer warning periods and post more signage in neighborhoods near the devices. Pawtucket officials have announced they will install similar cameras this year.
The Elorza administration was also forced to settle a class-action lawsuit that claimed the city didn’t include the state’s actual speeding law on tickets and wrongly asserted that violations would not affect insurance rates.
Under the terms of the settlement, individuals who had already paid a $95 fine were eligible to receive a $20 refund from the city, while those who hadn’t yet paid their fine were eligible to pay $75. All members of the class had the option of requesting a new hearing before a Municipal Court judge, giving them the opportunity to wipe out their fines altogether or receive a full refund. The city is expected to complete issuing refunds early this year.
Providence has also agreed to slight changes to its contract with Conduent. In September, Pare told the City Council the city now pays $3,573 per month for each of the 15 active speed cameras, up from $2,978 a month under a deal approved in 2017. Conduent also gets $7.90 per violation – even if the ticket is tossed out or the driver doesn’t pay – a 40-cent increase from the ordinal deal.
Pare said Providence would still receive about 75% of all revenue generated from the speed camera program, but he told the committee the revised contract better fits the company’s “model in recouping their expenses for the investment on the camera system.” For 2018, it was closer to a 60-40 split for the city.
The changes drew criticism from the Council Finance Committee Chairman John Igliozzi, who argued the city should not have agreed to more favorable terms for a private company.
“What they did is said they had a problem and you guys worried about solving their problem,” Igliozzi said.
All the while, Elorza has remained a steadfast supporter of the program. At a debate held shortly before he was easily re-elected in November, the mayor made it clear he believes there will come a time when the city may end up paying more than it takes. He said that will be worth it.
“It’s an investment we’re making in kids’ safety throughout the city,” Elorza said. “And I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: for those folks that are particularly troubled by these cameras, slow down.”