Ask any first-born child the main complaint they have about their birth order, and they’ll likely tell you that their younger siblings get to learn from their mistakes while they have to learn the hard way.
So it is that Schenectady finds itself in the enviable position of having an older sibling to learn from when it comes to the Capital District’s first significant experiment with red-light cameras.
Schenectady, which has considered but not asked the state Legislature for permission to install the controversial cameras at city intersections, can learn a lot from Albany, whose new 20-intersection camera system officially goes into enforcement mode next Friday after a 10-day grace period.
Even before the system goes online Schenectady can learn something from the Albany experience, through the installation of the cameras and the potential revenue.
Albany originally budgeted $2 million in revenue from fines, but had to scale that estimate back after deciding to reduce the number of cameras. The city also encountered unexpected problems installing the poles upon which the cameras are mounted. In digging the footings for the poles, for instance, they sometimes encountered hidden pipes and other buried infrastructure, forcing them to relocate poles. They also found it wasn’t always easy getting electricity to the poles to run the cameras.
Schenectady also can learn from the deal Albany signed with its contractor, GATSO, in terms of pricing and protecting taxpayers’ investment. One thing Schenectady can emulate is Albany’s “breakeven clause,” which ensures the city’s costs for the camera program don’t exceed the fines it collects.
All good lessons to learn.
Aside from budgeting conservatively, not underestimating the difficulty of installing the cameras, and getting a guarantee, Schenectady officials will see first-hand the potential problems with the enforcement tool, the most serious relating to the incidence of rearend collisions caused by drivers who suddenly stop when they realize they’re about to be filmed running a red light.
That’s been one of the problems encountered in other localities that have the cameras. Since Albany and Schenectady have similar streetscapes — many narrow old streets entering from everywhere onto main thoroughfares — we’ll be getting an apples-to-apples comparison.
Schenectady also will get an idea how easy or difficult it is to assess and collect fines, how to deal with problems associated with computer glitches and ill-timed traffic lights, and how much litigation they can expect from motorists upset about their rights being violated by the cameras, which only identify vehicles, not drivers.
On the positive side, Schenectady will also find out how effective these camera systems can be at reducing the number of drivers running red lights, improving pedestrian safety, reducing collisions and helping police with traffic enforcement. Because of the many potential upsides, we had urged the city officials to seek permission to install the cameras.
But since they waited, they’ll now get a unique chance to learn from big brother Albany’s experience.
If Schenectady officials pay close attention, it will help make their decision clearer — one way or the other.