City gives no restart date for camera tickets

Mayor's task force calls for better oversight to prevent errors

June 13, 2013|By Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

Two months after Baltimore stopped issuing tickets from its speed and red light cameras, city officials said Thursday they still don't know when the automated enforcement program will resume.

"We want to be able to re-establish the public trust in what we're doing," said William Johnson, who was appointed transportation director by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in May.

A Baltimore Sun investigation last year documented erroneous speed readings from several speed cameras supplied by a prior vendor and found that city judges routinely throw out tickets for various deficiencies. The city suspended the entire camera program in April, under a new vendor, because of fresh problems that officials blamed on human error, not the machines.

Johnson said Thursday the department is planning a "test run" of the cameras, adding that he's eager to get the devices online again because of the safety benefits. The city also is taking a financial hit: Speed cameras alone generated an average of $90,000 in fines each weekday last year.

His comments came after a task force formed by Rawlings-Blake issued a final report urging greater oversight of Baltimore's camera system, North America's largest with more than 150 speed and red light cameras. The task force also recommended putting speed cameras only on roads approaching, next to or beyond a school or "school-related activity" — not anywhere within a half-mile of a school.

In addition, the group called for the city to eventually stop paying its vendor a share of each citation. The city is paying Brekford Corp. of Anne Arundel County $11.20 of every $40 speed camera payment — a so-called "bounty system" that critics say gives companies a financial incentive to process questionable tickets.

Some recommendations, such as improved police review of citations, are already in place, officials say. Others, such as a suggestion to not place speed cameras near traffic signal intersections, would require changes because a number of existing camera sites are at major intersections.

Task force member Ragina Averella, manager of public and government relations at AAA Mid-Atlantic, said implementing most of the recommendations would "certainly go a long way in bringing some credibility back to the program."

Johnson told reporters he hopes to incorporate "as many of them as we can, as we prepare to roll out this new and improved system." He gave no timetable for the test run. "Nothing is going to go live before we're satisfied that everything is working throughout that test period," he said.

He and other transportation officials would not say when they expect to resume issuing camera tickets. "We still have not established that yet, but we will be making that announcement publicly when it goes live," said agency spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes.

Until this year, the cameras were a big revenue source for the city, yielding about $50 million just in speed camera fines since 2009. For the fiscal year that ends June 30, the city already has taken in more than $13 million from speed cameras. Even with the cameras largely idle since January, the city has exceeded its budget projections for the year.

The city is counting on $11.2 million from speed camera citations in the budget year that starts next month, along with $4.6 million from red light camera tickets, which are $75. Those figures include Brekford's share.

After The Sun published its findings last fall, Xerox State and Local Solutions, the city's contractor until Dec. 31, acknowledged that five of 83 speed cameras had error rates of 5 percent, prompting the city to take those offline. Rawlings-Blake publicly committed to replace all city speed cameras with newer models that use more sophisticated tracking radar.

The city's camera system was shut down after Jan. 1 amid a bumpy transition from Xerox to Brekford. Brekford said Xerox did not leave behind software needed to operate the cameras, while Xerox has contended that its software is proprietary.

The city began issuing speed camera tickets in February using new cameras from Brekford. It also was able to start using the existing red light cameras.

But in mid-April, the city suspended the program because of two errors: a new speed camera on The Alameda was programmed with the incorrect speed limit, and an incorrect mailing address was printed on citations.

Also in April, Baltimore officials said they were refusing to pay Xerox about $2 million for its final three months of work late last year, citing "a number of disagreements."

Around the same time, the city voided more than 6,000 speed and red light camera tickets that had been appealed by drivers. The reason was that Xerox stopped appearing at District Court to defend them. Company officials say they'd given the city all needed information to defend those tickets.

Tuesday's task force meeting was the seventh since last October and the first since March, when five members received a closed-door briefing from Brekford officials at company headquarters in Hanover. A state board found the meeting to violate the state's open meetings law because the public was barred.

A Brekford official again briefed the task force Tuesday. Averella described it as less detailed than the private briefing in March.

"We're working to restore the city's confidence in the technology," said Jacquelyn Tam, Brekford's manager for the city program.

scalvert@baltsun.com

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