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It will take San Francisco years to install 8 red-light cameras. Why?

The city plans to add eight red-light cameras by the end of 2024, including at the Harrison-Sixth Street intersection. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

The city’s plan to add eight new red-light cameras around San Francisco is going to take around two-and-a-half years to complete, according to the city’s transit agency. 

The Standard attempted to ask 18 experts, including lawmakers, local transit activists and attorneys, why it takes so long for San Francisco to install red-light cameras. Among those reached by The Standard, only six agreed to speak and provide comment by publication time.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which is leading the project, said it will take years because the installation involves excavating crosswalks to install electrical infrastructure, among other reasons. Whenever digging is required, the San Francisco Department of Public Works must also get involved, according to SFMTA spokesperson Stephen Chun.

The city plans to add eight red-light cameras by the end of 2024, including at the intersection of Harrison and Sixth streets. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

All corners around the intersections must also be surveyed to ensure compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. This can be time-consuming because Public Works, which is responsible for surveying, faces a backlog for survey and design, Chun said. 

Chun said the project involves multiple phases, each spanning several months, with the cameras to be installed in fall 2025. Chun said the “conceptual design phase” for the new camera locations has been completed and the city is moving onto the “detailed design phase,” which he says will be completed by summer 2024.

Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon acknowledged the department faces a backlog but said it was “not insurmountably large.” Gordon also said the city can tap “as-needed consultants” for prioritized projects if not enough city staff are available or if a project requires special expertise, such as constructing shelter for the Department of Animal Control.

Chun said the red-light cameras would use as-needed consultants, and that those efforts need to be balanced with existing work, including quick-build projects to prevent traffic fatalities, paving, and sewer and utility work, to name some examples.

Speed cameras and a tree
One of San Francisco's 19 red-light cameras is at Bryant and Sixth streets in South of Market.

Sarah Jones, SFMTA planning director from 2016 to 2021, said projects can take a long time to complete because they must comply with state law and solicit feedback from other departments through various committees. 

Jones said the camera project will likely need to be reviewed for compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act because adding cameras will change the environment. Jones also said it might require a public engineering hearing and that the San Francisco Fire Department—among possible other city divisions—could weigh in on the plan through the Transportation Advisory Safety Committee. Jones said she couldn’t confirm specific details because she no longer works for the SFMTA, however.

Two transit agency directors, including board chair Amanda Eaken and Manny Yekutiel, were asked for their input on why it takes so long to install the cameras. Eaken did not respond to requests for comment by publication and Yekutiel declined to weigh in.

On July 18, the transit agency’s board of directors extended a 2018 contract to upgrade an antiquated fleet of red-light cameras that dates back to the 1990s, bumping up total costs from $5 million to $9,999,999—just a dollar under the $10 million threshold that triggers required approval from the Board of Supervisors.

“It’s legal, but it’s an abhorrent practice,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin. “We’re all on the same side. We’re trying to reduce injuries and fatalities. Why are they scared about having a conversation about red-light cameras?”

Aaron Peskin presides over a Board of Supervisors meeting.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard.

The Standard contacted the following people for this story:

  • Manny Yekutiel, SFMTA director
  • Amanda Eaken, SFMTA board chair
  • The entire SFMTA board
  • Thea Selby, member of activist group San Francisco Transit Riders
  • Vinita Goyal, leader of San Francisco Transit Riders
  • Platinum Advisors, San Francisco lobbying firm
  • Ground Floor Public Affairs, San Francisco lobbying firm
  • Lighthouse Public Affairs, San Francisco lobbying firm
  • New Deal Advisers, San Francisco lobbying firm
  • Stephen Chun, SFMTA spokesperson
  • Rachel Gordon, San Francisco DPW spokesperson
  • Beth Rubenstein, DPW spokesperson
  • Eric Young, San Francisco County Transportation Authority spokesperson
  • Tilly Chang San Francisco County Transportation Authority director
  • Aaron Peskin, District 3 supervisor
  • Rafael Mandelman, District 8 supervisor
  • Tom McGuire, SFMTA Streets Division director 
  • Jaime Parks, SFMTA Livable Streets director
  • Sarah Jones, former SFMTA planning director
  • Scott Emblidge, attorney with expertise in city contracts
  • Mara Rosales, attorney who frequently represents public-sector clients, including those in the transportation industry

‘Not a New Issue’

The Standard also reached out to third-party experts in public contracting. While they couldn’t provide specifics about the city’s red-light cameras, several said that infrastructure projects can take months or even years to complete.

Often, this is because the city can’t just buy goods and services—it has to give companies the opportunity to strike up a contract to provide them.

“If a city wanted 10 pickup trucks, they couldn’t just go down to the dealer,” said Scott Emblidge, an attorney with San Francisco firm Moscone Emblidge & Rubens with expertise in San Francisco’s public contracting. “They have to go through a competitive bidding process.”

In bureaucratic parlance, that’s called a Request for Proposal, or RFP. It’s a process by which a local government that wants to get goods or services—for things like, say, red-light cameras or public toilets or trash cans—puts out a request for companies to say what they can provide and at what cost.

The Slim Silhouette prototype model is pictured at Market Street and Van Ness Avenue.

Emblidge said one of the primary reasons contracts become lengthier is if new equipment or software is needed.

Rufus Jeffris, communications vice president for the Bay Area Council regional business group, said San Francisco government bodies, including the SFMTA, need to “prioritize doing things faster, better and less expensively.”

“This is not a new issue,” Jeffris wrote in an email. “Residents, businesses and others pay a lot in taxes and they deserve results, they deserve to have a government that works for them. This is particularly true as we confront tighter budgets.”

Indeed, San Francisco has had its share of expensive, drawn-out infrastructure projects that have received scathing criticism and media attention. Among them was a public toilet set to cost $1.7 million—until the price tag later dropped to $300,000 after public outcry.

Other projects include a $550,000 quest for new trash cans, bus-only lanes on Van Ness Avenue, and the Central Subway, which was four years late and $375 million over budget when it opened last fall.