Troubled transition shuts down city speed cameras

No citations in 2013; just 17 red light tickets issued

  • This speed cameras is on Franklin St. at Pulaski St.
This speed cameras is on Franklin St. at Pulaski St. (Algerina Perna )
January 22, 2013|By Luke Broadwater and Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore's speed and red light camera system has experienced a near-complete shutdown during what city officials are calling a problematic transition to a new contractor, records show, and the new vendor says it could take four months to get its system running.

City officials acknowledged Tuesday that Baltimore's network of 83 speed cameras — which issued about 2,300 tickets each weekday last year — has yet to issue any in 2013. And records posted on a city website indicate that red light cameras have issued just 17 tickets, all in the first two days of the year.

The city could miss out on $1 million or more in speeding fines alone each month that the system stays dark.

Meanwhile, the city recently notified some motorists that they would receive refunds because they paid $40 speed camera citations that officials now believe were erroneous. Transportation officials gave few details Tuesday, saying only that 239 tickets would be voided and declining to explain how the city determined who was entitled to a refund or which cameras generated the faulty citations.

The bumpy transition and the issuance of refund notices are the latest signs of trouble for the lucrative automated enforcement network, which has generated tens of millions of dollars for the city in recent years. The Baltimore Sun has documented erroneous speed readings from several city radar cameras, including a speeding citation issued to a Mazda stopped at a red light, and has shown that judges routinely throw out tickets for a range of deficiencies.

Xerox State and Local Solutions, the city's contractor until Dec. 31, acknowledged that five cameras had error rates of 5 percent, prompting the city to take those offline late last year. Since then, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has publicly committed the city to replacing all of its speed cameras with newer models that use more sophisticated tracking radar.

City Solicitor George Nilson said in a recent interview that the city and its new vendor, Brekford Corp. of Hanover, have experienced "transitional problems." On Tuesday, he said the city, Xerox and Brekford have been working jointly to achieve the city's "overwhelming objective," which is a "smooth move from the former system to the new system with as little gap and as little disruption as possible."

The camera system typically gives out several thousand red light and speed camera tickets per day, with fewer on weekends — when only red light cameras are allowed to operate — and on holidays. On Christmas Day, the system generated 1,128 citations. On Jan. 1, 16 red light camera tickets were issued and just one ticket the day after. No tickets of either kind have been issued since Jan. 2, the city's website shows.

Nilson said Tuesday that he was unsure whether the speed cameras are generating tickets and referred questions to the city's Transportation Department.

"No citations have been issued since Jan. 1st," Adrienne Barnes, a spokeswoman for the department, wrote in an email Tuesday night.

Barnes said the process of replacing equipment "will require cameras to be temporarily taken offline until the new systems are properly calibrated." She said earlier this month that "in the interest of public safety, the city will not disclose when the cameras will be offline or where they are located."

If all cameras were to stay offline for an extended period, it could be costly for the city. From July through November, the city collected $9.6 million just in speed camera fines, about $90,000 per weekday. According to the city's budget, Baltimore expects to take in $11.4 million from speed cameras this fiscal year.

"We will take a bit of a revenue hit in the transition, undoubtedly," Nilson said.

Before Xerox's contract ended, Brekford had promised a seamless transition.

"Our plan involves taking over the existing system, with no downtime, and facilitating a transfer of ownership of all power and communications to the city," Brekford's chief executive, C.B. Brechin, wrote in a letter to city officials.

But Maurice R. Nelson, managing director of Brekford, said matters subsequently got more complicated. Xerox did not leave behind its software for the city's cameras when its contract ended, he said, and so Brekford could not operate the cameras.

"The only reason we haven't started is we were looking for some software," Nelson said. "I needed that software to begin our program."

Xerox contends that its software is proprietary, and company officials have referred questions to the city and to Brekford, saying they are no longer the city's vendor.

Last year when the city sought bids to operate a camera system, the official request for proposals noted in several places that vendors would have to supply their own software. In one place, the city document states: "All software necessary to operate the cameras shall be provided by the vendor."

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