Baltimore to award nearly $10 million to two companies to restart speed, red light cameras

Baltimore officials plan to award contracts worth nearly $10 million on Wednesday to two companies that will relaunch the city's once-troubled speed and red light camera system as early as June.

American Traffic Solutions will be paid $5.4 million to run the city's speed camera system and Conduent Inc. will be paid $4.2 million to run the red light camera system, according to a proposal under consideration by the city's spending panel. A third firm, MRA Digital LLC, will be paid $80,000 to calibrate the cameras annually.

Mayor Catherine Pugh plans to relaunch Baltimore's speed and red light camera system to generate $8 million in revenue for next fiscal year and get drivers to slow down. The five-year contracts include two options to renew for two years each.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who is chairman of the five-member Board of Estimates that will vote on the contracts Wednesday, said he supports the mayor's proposal.

Young said he thought it best to start with a small number of cameras and expand the program once it's proved to be reliable.

"We can step it up after we make sure everything is running smoothly and we can have trust in it," he said. "We need to slow traffic down. The surrounding counties have it. Baltimore should have it for safety."

He also acknowledged that the system will create a new revenue stream for the city.

"I'm not going to say it's not for generating revenue," Young said. "It's going to generate revenue."

In announcing the program's return in March, Pugh said the cameras have "always been considered a revenue-producing tool." But, she said, they also would encourage safer driving.

Young said city transportation officials have assured him the program will have better oversight scrutiny than previous iterations. Tickets will be reviewed by the companies, a transportation official and a police officer.

The firms will not be paid per citation, a past practice known as the "bounty system" that the General Assembly outlawed in response to a Baltimore Sun investigation.

"Those three levels of scrutiny satisfy me," Young said.

This would be the city's third camera program, following two failed attempts in which cameras issued erroneous tickets to drivers who were not speeding. The system, which was run for years by Xerox State and Local Solutions and briefly by Brekford Corp., was shut down in April 2013.

The prior system of 83 speed and 81 red light cameras once brought in nearly $20 million a year for the city. But it was dogged by questions about its accuracy after a Baltimore Sun investigation revealed numerous problems.

At the program's height, 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.

To avoid the problems of the past, 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. The program will begin no earlier than June and then will issue warning citations for a month. And it will be a much smaller system: 10 red-light cameras, 10 fixed speed cameras and 10 portable cameras.

City Councilman Eric T. Costello, chairman of the council's Budget and Appropriations Committee, said he has confidence the system will be better run now.

"I think it's a great tool," Costello said. "It sounds like they've got better quality control in place and it's a more manageable size."

The two winning firms are some of the biggest traffic enforcement camera operators in the country. But both have encountered problems.

American Traffic Solutions is facing a $200 million lawsuit in Florida seeking refunds from red light tickets.

Conduent was formerly a part of Xerox, which previously ran Baltimore's system. An audit of Xerox's cameras in Baltimore revealed error rates of higher than 5 percent.

Representatives from both companies did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

Maryland law allows jurisdictions to issue $40 speed camera tickets to vehicles traveling 12 miles per hour or more over the speed limit. Red light camera tickets carry a $75 fine.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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