A provincial announcement that extends the moratorium on municipalities setting up photo radar in new locations leaves communities like St. Albert with unanswered questions, Mayor Cathy Heron said.
The provincial government announced last week it will lengthen the moratorium by another year.
Because of the moratorium, which has been in place since 2019, as well as the increased regulations implemented by the province in 2021, the number of photo radar enforcement hours in St. Albert has dropped by almost 45 per cent over the last two years.
Besides the extension, the provincial government also announced it will prohibit Edmonton and Calgary from operating photo radar on the cities' respective ring-roads — Anthony Henday Drive and Stoney Trail — and the government plans to spend the next year consulting municipalities on “fishing hole” radar locations.
In an interview, Transportation and Economic Corridors Minister Devin Dreeshen, said "fishing holes" are photo radar locations that generate "extremely high revenue” while having no effect on traffic safety.
“Even though we've gotten rid of fishing holes and photo radar sites on Edmonton and Calgary's ring roads, we're now going to be working with all municipalities that use photo radar to identify their fishing holes that have nothing to do really with traffic safety, but do have a lot to do with revenue generation,” Dreeshen said.
According to the City of St. Albert's statistics, 21,304 tickets were issued last year totalling $1.6 million in fine revenue. However, after deducting program expenses, the revenue dwindled down to about $740,000.
Heron said she was disappointed with the government's announcement, adding the province has had four years to consult with municipalities.
“They could have been doing whatever consultation they think needed to be done in the last four years,” she said. “I was hoping for some resolution to the moratorium, [now] we're left with unanswered questions once again.”
Likewise, Coun. Ken MacKay said a further extension to the moratorium leaves St. Albert, and municipalities throughout the province, “in an awkward position.”
As the Gazette previously reported, St. Albert city council recently voted to maintain the status quo when it comes to photo radar enforcement. The vote came as a result of administration asking for direction as the city's 10-year contract with Global Traffic Group, the company that handles all photo radar enforcement in the city, is set to expire in April.
Council heard at the time even though the provincial government's increased regulations and reporting requirements meant the number of annual photo radar enforcement hours has dwindled, another full-time staff member will likely need to be hired to make sure the city stays in compliance with the province.
“I'm kind of disappointed that they continue to use the term 'fishing holes,'” MacKay said. “To call them fishing holes, I think, undermines the fact that obviously, they have to be approved; there has to be a history of high speeds, there has to be a history of collision avoidance, there has to be a number of different factors.”
“I just think it's just too convenient to use the term 'fishing holes' — there is a great deal of justification that has to go into the selection of these sites.”
Dreeshen said the upcoming consultations will be “pretty extensive.”
“There's 2,400 [photo radar] sites across Alberta in 26 municipalities, and we are going to painstakingly go through each site to see if it qualifies as a fishing hole and then also be able to list sensitive areas where photo radar should be when it comes to traffic safety,” he said.
“There will be a considerable engagement and a lot of work over the next year to make sure we come up with the right photo radar locations in the province.”
St. Albert has about 130 photo radar sites, but city administration recently estimated up to 25 per cent of those sites will no longer be eligible as of 2024, as determined by the province's 2021 legislation.
MacKay and other members of council have said another issue with the government's increased regulations is that St. Albert needs to rely on RCMP officers and peace officers to make up for the reduced speeding enforcement previously handled by the photo radar program. However, given the local RCMP detachment's current staffing shortage, and the reduced photo radar enforcement, St. Albert is struggling to enforce traffic laws and speeding.
Dreeshen said municipalities like St. Albert could consider following Strathcona County's footsteps.
In 2011, Strathcona County decided to end its mobile photo radar enforcement program and hired five peace officers instead.
“Every community is going to be different, but obviously I think it matters a lot to see more sheriffs, more police officers, more RCMP, [and] there's obviously a shortage across the province but it's good to see just that increased police presence,” Dreeshen said. “When they're doing traditional traffic enforcement where they're pulling somebody over, there's always other things that they can charge people with.”
“A lot of extra policing work can be done with traditional traffic enforcement, which photo radar never would capture.”
Both Heron and MacKay said if St. Albert was to follow Strathcona County's lead, it would come at a cost to taxpayers, as hiring additional officers costs much more than photo radar equipment.
“I don't want to spend taxpayers dollars subsidizing enforcement when I have a different option, which is automatic,” Heron said.
MacKay said going back to relying on police officers for traffic enforcement would have some benefits, but officers aren't able to catch all speeders, whereas photo radars can.
“All [the government] would have to do is just say, ‘we're going to eliminate all photo enforcement sites with the exception of intersection safety cameras,’ and then municipalities are stuck doing that,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the freeze is still in place, and I was hoping that we would get a little bit more clarity and certainty around this.”