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7 on Council back cameras to nab red-light runners

If you're prone to running red lights, some Buffalo lawmakers think there's an easy way to break you of the habit.

Seven of the city's nine Common Council members like the idea of installing special cameras to help nab violators. And they're hoping to convince the two holdout lawmakers that it's a worthy program before the issue is put to a vote in two weeks.

But city officials don't have the final say. That's why they'll ask the state to let Buffalo use the same high-tech tools for catching motorists that New York City has used since 1994. It will be the Council's third attempt in five years to try to get permission from Albany.

It's not just a matter of promoting safety that's spurring an initiative championed by Mayor Byron W. Brown. It's also a dollars-and-cents issue.

Based on estimates prepared last summer, budget officials projected that a red-light camera program would bring in $3.5 million in additional money -- even after the costs of installing and monitoring the cameras. Officials have pledged to use some of the money to pay for additional policing.

Council Members Joseph Golombek Jr. of the North District and Michael J. LoCurto of Delaware are sponsoring the latest effort.

Critics insist the tactic amounts to a "hidden tax" on drivers.

"If you don't break the law, you don't get a ticket," replied LoCurto. "I don't buy the hidden tax argument."

Sponsors point out that hundreds of people are killed and tens of thousands are hurt each year statewide in accidents at intersections that are controlled by traffic lights.

But John Curr III, regional director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said there is documentation that shows accidents have actually increased in some cities that have red-light cameras.

"The dirty little secret is that some localities have reduced the length of the yellow light," said Curr.

Curr also said there are civil liberties concerns about red-light cameras. He noted that the city has already installed many surveillance devices that are used -- not to catch red-light runners -- but to try to deter crime in neighborhoods.

"It's hard to think of anything more Orwellian than having more cameras," said Curr.

South Council Member Michael P. Kearns and Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera are the members who have expressed reservations. Kearns said he needs to be convinced that the initiative will actually make money for the city, not end up costing more to implement.

Rivera, a Buffalo police officer on leave, said he has logistical questions. For example: What if someone other than the owner is driving the vehicle when the violation occurs? Who gets the ticket?, Rivera wondered.

While supporters had more than enough votes to adopt the bill at Tuesday's Council meeting, they decided to wait two weeks in hopes of addressing lingering concerns so that Buffalo could send a unanimous message to Albany.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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