California law bars municipalities from rewarding operators of red-light cameras based on the amount of revenue they extract from motorists. Over fifty municipalities have tried to finesse that rule with a billing scheme called “cost-neutrality”, in which a supposedly fixed fee is reduced if insufficient revenue is generated to cover it. In essence, the scheme gives the operator a cut of the revenue up to some ceiling.
The scheme was ruled illegal in a case last December, but due to some legal issue I don’t understand, it didn’t establish a precedent. Now a second California court has ruled the same way. The opinion, quoted in its entirety, reads:
I think there’s only way to set up a red-light camera system that avoids their corrupt incentives: to forbid the authority that institutes the cameras from receiving any of the revenue. The natural way to do this is to require that all the revenue goes to the state. If red-light cameras were really about safety, municipalities would have no problem with such a rule.
This was attempted in Washington’s proposition I-985. Unfortunately, I-985 failed (it would have done a lot more than just reform red-light cameras), but it elicited some revealing comments from local officials, who were very opposed to it.