Over comptroller's objection, Baltimore officials vote to relaunch speed cameras

Over the objection of the city's comptroller, Baltimore officials voted Wednesdayto award contracts worth nearly $10 million to two companies that will relaunch the city's once-troubled speed and red-light camera system.

Baltimore's Board of Estimates, which is controlled by Mayor Catherine Pugh, voted 4-0 to approve the deal. Comptroller Joan M. Pratt abstained from the vote, saying she is not confident the camera system will be run correctly.

Under the contract, 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 over the next five years. A third firm, MRA Digital LLC, will be paid $80,000 to calibrate the cameras annually.

Pratt pointed out that Conduent is simply a new name for Xerox State and Local Solutions, which ran the city's system for years until it was shut down amid accuracy concerns. Audits of the program showed the cameras had error rates greater than 5 percent.

"Until December 2016, Xerox was in existence and then it changed its name to Conduent," Pratt said. "I'm not certain sufficient vetting was done to show that Xerox has improved and we will not have a repeat of the same problems that we had in the past."

Pugh said the new cameras will generate revenue and force drivers to slow down. The city hopes to generate $8 million in revenue for the next fiscal year on top of the money paid to the camera firms. The five-year contracts include two options to renew for two years each.

"People ask, 'Is it a revenue generator?' Yes it is," Pugh said. "Do we want people speeding through our streets? No."

Frank Murphy, acting director of the city Department of Transportation, called the vote a "great day for the city of Baltimore."

"The No. 1 complaint that we get from residents about traffic is speed," Murphy said. "This will give us a tool to combat that."

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. The cameras will use radar and laser technology.

City officials said they will begin testing the cameras by the end of the month. They plan to announce each camera location and give residents 30 days' warning before issuing citations.

Pugh said she would announce the start date for the system soon.

"We need to make sure the public knows a hard-and-fast date," Pugh said. She added that she consulted with officials in other jurisdictions, such as Chicago and Montgomery County, before deciding to move forward.

City officials 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.

"We're chosen two experienced camera contractors," he said. "As far as our history with cameras, we understand that people are upset and frustrated about what happened in the past. We are as well."

In addition to ending "bounty system" payments to vendors, Liberati said, the city hired an ombudsman to answer citizen complaints. And each ticket will undergo several reviews.

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 were a vocal opponent regarding what was happening with the speed cameras several years ago," she said. "We had grave concerns back then. We made numerous recommendations, many of which were implemented. ... AAA had been working very closely with the city."

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 previous system of 83 speed cameras 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.

The new system will be much smaller: 10 red-light cameras, 10 fixed speed cameras and 10 portable cameras.

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

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