A community just north of Philadelphia will become the first suburb in the state to install red-light cameras under a new law allowing the devices to be used outside Pennsylvania's largest city.
Township commissioners in Abington voted 14-1 last September to install the devices at three busy intersections. The town received final approval from PennDot last October.
For the past eight years, Philadelphia has been the only place in Pennsylvania where surveillance cameras can snap pictures of cars that fail to stop at red lights. Scofflaws are fined $100.
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But a state law approved last year permits Pittsburgh, Abington and 11 other municipalities to consider installing the devices. Several of those communities have discussed the idea, but Abington is the only one so far to go through with it.
Town officials hope to install the cameras by January or February. Ten cameras will be placed along Old York Road at Susquehanna, Old Welsh and Moreland Road.
Drivers in Abington will see signs indicating that they are approaching a red-light camera intersection. All violations recorded during the camera's first 60 days will only be warnings with no fine attached.
In order to cover the $500,000 annual cost of the cameras, Abington would have to issue 5,040 red light violations a year. Fortunately for town residents, any camera revenue shortfalls will be covered by the contractor rather then taxpayers.
Critics say the cameras invade motorists' privacy without having a clear-cut effect on safety. And the state Transportation Advisory Committee has warned that red-light cameras might not prove financially feasible outside of urban settings.
"If you're a smaller municipality with low-volume intersections ... it could be more cost-effective to pay for some police overtime or some low-cost safety improvements,'' AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Jenny Robinson said. "The jury's still out. We just don't know. Abington's program is new. It's the first one in the suburbs."
Of the $10 million in fines Philadelphia collected in 2011-12, about $7 million went to pay expenses, the Philadelphia Parking Authority reported. The agency is also working to collect more than $10 million in unpaid violations.
The fines are first used to cover installation and maintenance costs of the cameras, while surplus money goes into a statewide fund. The fund has distributed $14.6 million in grants for local traffic safety projects since 2010, and another $8.8 million is up for grabs in 2013, according to PennDOT.
Abington Commissioner Steven Kline, the only board member to oppose the cameras, called them "extremely controversial.'' He said he received about 150 letters from residents upset about their planned use.
"I think there's enough stuff on both sides to make you wonder, and to stay away from them,'' Kline said.
Some residents believe the cameras are needed however.
"I could use the help," said Michael Healy who had to pay red-light camera fines in Philadelphia. "All too often I think that I can make it through. They will be helpful and ultimately they will save lives. They will certainly affect the way this driver drives."
Robinson believes nearby towns will be keeping a close eye on Abington and its year-long "experiment."
"I believe some other townships have considered it," she said. "There are about a dozen municipalities in the suburbs that are legally eligible to do it."