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Wilmington renews contract with the controversial company behind its red light cameras

This week, Wilmington City Council moved to renew its contract with American Traffic Solutions, the company behind the city’s red light traffic cameras. That’s two years after North Carolina’s engineering board ruled that the company violated state law in its engineering plans. WHQR’s Ben Schachtman and All Things Considered Host Hannah Breisinger discuss how American Traffic Solutions is now planning to reconcile the issue.

BS: Hi, Hannah, how are you?

HB: I'm good. How are you?

BS: I'm good too. So this week, the City of Wilmington has a new contract with a red light camera company called American Traffic Solutions. Or they're now doing business as Verra Mobility, I believe -- but for people who haven't had an experience with the red light camera system, how does this all work?

HB: It's super fun. You go through a red light and this camera snaps a picture, and then you get a citation in the mail, which apparently does a lot to reduce traffic issues and accidents. So the city has had a system in place with this particular company since 2009, 2010 -- and then there was also a company before them. So red light cameras have been around for a while here.

BS: And they make quite a bit of money for the city.

HB: They do make a lot of money for this city, and actually 90% of that goes towards New Hanover County Schools. So it's a good system for funding our public schools -- which is kind of an interesting thing, red light cameras and public schools -- but it works, apparently.

BS: So, yeah, the city is obviously a fan of it. They've renewed contracts in the past several times, but not without controversy. And there's been a number of issues, including the right to sort of confront your accuser and unlike a traditional court case -- you get a speeding ticket where you're innocent until proven guilty -- if you run a red light and the camera takes your photo, you have to prove you're innocent. So you have to prove you weren't driving in the car, or prove that the camera malfunctioned somehow. 

BS: There's also the issue of how the cameras were actually installed.

HB: Yes. And you and other staff writers at Port City Daily have done a lot of extensive coverage on this. But the basics for anyone who might not know is, since American Traffic Solutions has been around, they haven't engineered the cameras legally. And that is an issue that was actually decided on by the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors. And you know a little bit more about that, and you can go into that more in-depth, but yeah. 

BS: Yeah. So basically, when you build something -- especially if you're building it on a city or a state property -- you have to have certified plans for it. Those plans have to be certified by an engineer. And when American Traffic Solutions built the poles, the physical mounts for these cameras, the employee of ATS that certified them was not licensed to practice in North Carolina.

BS: Now, we never actually got to the bottom as to what kind of liabilities that would create for the city, but it was enough of a concern that last year, when they extended the contract for a year, City Attorney John Joye said that he would not give them another extension or a new contract until they fixed this issue. Which is good news, except that they didn't.

BS: So what happens next, I believe, is that Verra Mobility, or ATS, is going to tear down all the current camera mounts and build new ones. And there'll actually be some new technology with the cameras while they're at it. And that'll have to happen by May 2021. And that will be ATS' expense. So not at the city's expense.

BS: But none of that really got discussed at the meeting, right? This was on the consent agenda?

HB: Yeah, they flew right past this. So this is stuff a lot of people probably aren't aware of. But basically, what you're saying is that the cameras are going to be legally engineered, there's going to be a certified engineer's name sealed on the plan designs.

BS: That's correct. So at least for the foreseeable future, ATS and the city will be in good stead. As for those other issues, we'll leave that for another time.

HB: Yeah. All right. Well, thank you so much, Ben. Thanks for talking about this with me.

BS: Thank you.

Hannah is WHQR's All Things Considered host, and also reports on science, the environment, and climate change. She enjoys loud music, documentaries, and stargazing; and is the proud mother of three cats, a dog, and many, many houseplants. Contact her via email at hbreisinger@whqr.org, or on Twitter @hbreisinger.
Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature.