Baltimore Relaunches Speed Camera Program

A proposed contract is expected to go before the city's spending panel by May.

by Luke Broadwater, The Baltimore Sun / March 31, 2017

(TNS) -- City lawmakers and a drivers advocacy group welcomed the announcement of a smaller, better-monitored camera system, but said they wanted to make sure whichever company runs the program doesn't issue erroneous tickets as previous vendors did.

"I have no problems with a speed camera program. I have constituents on some roads who are dying for them to come back," City Councilman Brandon Scott said. "I hope we are awarding it to a company that can operate it in a fair way, where we aren't making the same mistakes as before."

Baltimore officials solicited bids on operating a new camera system last January and said Wednesday they are deciding among six finalists. Typically, the city releases the names and proposals of those who respond to a request for bids. But on Thursday, the Pugh administration withheld the names of the speed camera bidders.

Department of Transportation spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes said the names of the competing firms will be disclosed once a winner is selected. A proposed contract is expected to go before the city's spending panel by May.

"It's still an ongoing process," Barnes said. "We want to wait until the process is complete."

With millions in profits at stake, several speed camera companies have registered lobbyists with city government, including Optotraffic, Xerox State & Local Solutions, and American Traffic Solutions.

Pugh revealed her plans to restart the camera program as she unveiled her $2.8 billion budget Wednesday. Pugh's budget director said the projected $8 million the cameras would generate next fiscal year would help close a $20 million budget gap.

"It has always been considered a revenue-producing tool, but it's also a tool to slow down traffic and make our city safer," Pugh said.

This will be the city's third program after two failed attempts in which cameras issued erroneous tickets. The system, which was run for years by Xerox and briefly by Brekford Corp., was shut down in April 2013.

At its height, Baltimore's speed camera system brought in nearly $20 million a year for the city. But the system was dogged by questions about its accuracy after a Baltimore Sun investigation revealed numerous problems, including tickets issued to stopped or slow-moving cars.

Pugh assured drivers the camera system will be smaller and better monitored that it was before. "We expect them to be accurate," she said.

City officials confirmed Thursday they have hired former Prince George's County Police Maj. Robert V. Liberati to oversee the program. Liberati previously ran the Prince George's speed camera system.

Ragina Averella, public and government affairs manager at AAA Mid-Atlantic said she was "encouraged" by the city's plans for a better-monitored system. Averella served on a city speed camera task force under Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

"We're hopeful we won't see similar issues to what we've seen in the past," Averella said.

A spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said the president was also pleased the cameras are returning in smaller numbers.

Last January, Baltimore's Transportation Department issued a request for bids for 10 red light cameras, 10 fixed speed cameras and 10 portable cameras to relaunch its once-vast network. City officials said Thursday they also plan to use six cameras to catch commercial trucks traveling on car-only roads.

The camera program will begin no earlier than June and then will issue warning citations for a month. Transportation officials said they've added new "quality control staff," including an ombudsman to deal with allegations of erroneous tickets. All camera locations will be published on the city's website before the program launches.

Most of the pledges made by city officials are required by a 2014 law passed by the Maryland General Assembly. The law mandated that jurisdictions employ ombudsmen and banned the so-called "bounty system" in which contractors were rewarded financially for issuing more tickets. The law does not apply to contracts that were in place before it passed.

Jurisdictions are also required to alert motorists to the presence of mobile cameras by posting signs and waiting 15 days before issuing tickets from them. The law did not include some reform proposals, including requiring time stamps on tickets to help verify accuracy. But it did require local governments to publish detailed annual reports, and it subjects contractors to damages if their error rate exceeds 5 percent.

State Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who is against the cameras, was the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the bill.

"I hope they go through the legislation that passed and make sure all the safeguards are in place," Brochin said of plans to relaunch speed cameras in Baltimore. "Everything in that legislation was the result of something they were doing that wasn't right.

"They got speed camera crazy. They became the jurisdiction that had more speed cameras than anywhere in North America."

After a months-long investigation beginning in 2012, The Sun documented erroneous speed readings at seven cameras in Baltimore, including one in which the driver of a car stopped at a red light was accused of speeding. The investigation also showed that several jurisdictions, including Baltimore and Baltimore County, were engaged in contracts in which the vendor was paid per citation.

Amid continued questions, Baltimore took its entire speed and red-light camera system offline in 2013. The system, once the largest in North America, had brought in $140 million since 1999 to city government.

At the time, a single Baltimore officer reviewed 1,000 to 1,200 of the machine-generated citations per shift — sometimes as many as five or six per minute.

Critics of the automated cameras have argued that running such a large system relies too much on technology, which is known to sometimes produce false readings, and makes it harder to do a substantive review of the tickets. For instance, city officials have acknowledged that, in 2011, their red light camera system issued about 2,000 tickets to motorists with a signature bearing the name of a dead police officer.

Ron Ely, chairman of the anti-speed-camera Maryland Drivers Alliance, said he doesn't believe the basic problems with the cameras have been fixed.

"The fundamental problems that made erroneous citations possible have not been solved," he said in an email. "Unfortunately the rest of the speed camera programs in the state think Baltimore's real problem was that they ultimately ADMITTED that errors took place. I am worried that anyone hit with an erroneous citation in the future may be presumed guilty and denied access to exculpatory evidence."

Local governments can use the cameras to issue $40 tickets to drivers found to be traveling more than 11 mph over the speed limit in school or work zones. In Baltimore County, the speed camera vendor, Xerox, receives $19 of every $40 ticket paid.

©2017 The Baltimore Sun Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.