Provoking outrage from Philadelphia public school parents, the Legislature has extended the Parking Authority's red-light- camera program for another four years - and killed a bid to send some of the money from fines to the Philadelphia School District.
The state House voted, 135-57, yesterday to continue the program through 2011, approving the same bill that the state Senate passed 49-0 the day before. Gov. Rendell told reporters he would sign it.
The bill's supporters, including the AAA Mid-Atlantic motorists' group, say the red-light program has improved traffic safety, especially along the dangerous Roosevelt Boulevard, where most of the authority's cameras are deployed.
But the state Senate rejected a proposal to divert some of the revenues - an estimated $1.2 million a year - to the school district. The House went along, after a half-hour of debate.
"This is a real slap in the face to our kids, and apparently they [the legislators] don't give a damn whether our kids are educated or not," said Greg Wade, president of the Philadelphia Home and School Council. "Once again, the Parking Authority is getting away with murder, as far as I'm concerned."
Helen Gym, a leader of Parents United for Public Schools, said: "It's a reason why people - not only in Philadelphia but in many other parts - are just sick and tired of the state taking our schools and not taking responsibility for them, and taking over an entity like the Parking Authority and just letting it run amok with waste and patronage and greed."
Since 2005, the Parking Authority been using cameras to catch drivers running red lights at locations approved by PennDOT and City Council. The program is operating at 10 intersections, eight of them along the Boulevard. But the program was set to expire at the end of the year, and the authority's bid to continue it was undermined by recent news stories about its soaring payroll and expenses.
When House Republican leader John Perzel engineered a Republican takeover of the Parking Authority in mid-2001, he spoke of making the agency more efficient and sending $45 million to the schools. But in six years, the district has received only $4 million.
State Rep. Michael McGeehan drafted a proposal last month to send fines from the red-light program to the district instead of to PennDOT, and the idea won backing from the House Appropriations Committee.
"No matter how worthy the cause, schools included, AAA believes that red-light-camera revenues should be used for transportation safety purposes," AAA spokeswoman Catherine L. Rossi said.
"I knew I was tilting at windmills to begin with," McGeehan said after yesterday's vote. "The Parking Authority has an extensive and rather expensive lobbying effort up here . . . This particular war is over, and we'll give the PPA an opportunity to live up to the promises they made."
After speeches by McGeehan, Rep. Tony Payton and Rep. James Roebuck, the House Education Committee chairman, half the Philadelphia delegation opposed the red-light extension.
But it won votes from city GOP Reps. John Taylor and George Kenney, Democratic Reps. Thomas Blackwell, Louise Bishop, Frank Oliver, Cherelle Parker, Angel Cruz, Bill Keller, Ron Waters and Rosita Youngblood. The most critical backing came from Rep. Dwight Evans, the House Appropriations chairman.
Evans distributed a letter from authority chairman Joseph T. Ashdale and executive director Vincent J. Fenerty Jr., promising to provide extensive reports on the authority's finances, contracting and other operations.
"The extra money for the school district would have been the cherry on the icing on the cake," said Evans' spokeswoman Johnna Pro. *