Baltimore speed cameras return under stricter laws

When Baltimore turns on a new set of speed cameras Monday, it will operate under new laws that officials say will make the system more reliable and less prone to errors than an old one that had to be shut down.

The city will operate 10 portable speed cameras near schools throughout the city, the first step in Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh's plan to launch a network that eventually will include 20 speed cameras, 10 red light cameras and a system designed to enforce a prohibition on trucks using certain streets.

Robert Liberati, a former Prince George's County police officer who is in charge of the system, said drivers should be confident that improvements in technology and the city's process for reviewing tickets will make the cameras much more accurate.

"There's been a number of changes that we've made," he said. "Number one, we have new equipment and this new technology. Second of all, we have a dedicated staff here at the Department of Transportation to review violations."

The old, much larger network of cameras was turned off in 2013 after The Baltimore Sun documented numerous problems with the system, including that cameras were spitting out erroneous tickets — in one case a stationary car was flagged for speeding. The following year, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law imposing several new restrictions on jurisdictions that operate speed cameras.

Among the changes was a ban on paying contractors a bounty for each ticket issued. This time around the city has issued a $5.4 million contract to American Traffic Solutions to run the cameras for five years. Another firm has a $4.2 million contract to operate the red light and truck monitoring system. And a third company has been hired to calibrate the cameras.

Liberati, who previously ran the Prince George's County speed camera system, said each ticket will be reviewed first by staff at the contractor, then by members of his team at the Department of Transportation and finally by a city police officer. Drivers who have complaints will be able to contact an ombudsman, a position the city was required to create by the 2014 law, rather than having to go straight to court.

Ragina C. Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA-Mid Atlantic, said the motorists' group is hopeful the changes will lead to a better system.

"We are happy that they're starting out much smaller than what we saw in the past," she said. "We are optimistic that with some of the lessons learned from the past that perhaps this time around we won't experience some of the issues that we saw."

The 10 portable cameras will be placed near seven schools across the city at locations chosen based on accident data, a history of past violations and requests from the community. For the first 30 days, officials will issue warnings rather than the usual $40 fines to drivers who pass the cameras going at least 12 miles per hour over the speed limit.

The cameras are restricted to operating between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. on weekdays. They will be on whether or not school is in session. Signs will alert drivers to the cameras' locations.

The city will place cameras on streets near Frederick Douglass High School, Vanguard Collegiate Middle School, Holy Angels Catholic School, Edmondson Westside High School, Glenmount Elementary/Middle School, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute/Western High School and Gwynns Falls Elementary School.

Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott said people in his district had been clamoring for cameras on two of the streets the city picked because they have gained a reputation for being dangerous. He said he's pleased with the locations and that if people get caught after having adequate notice, that's on them.

At least one Baltimore lawmaker expressed concern about the placement of cameras. State Del. Nick J. Mosby, a member of the City Council when Baltimore last had a speed camera program, questioned why portable cameras were not placed in the city's north or southeast areas.

In a pair of postings on Twitter, Mosby asked whether "folks drive faster in West Baltimore," where three camera sites are located, and called it "perplexing" that two cameras would be placed on Gwynns Falls Parkway. Mosby could not be reached for further comment.

The city is still in the planning phase for the fixed cameras, but Liberati said he expects them to be operating later this summer.

Officials have set two goals for the new camera system: They want to get people to drive more safely near schools and raise some $8 million a year by fining those who don't slow down.

The city previously had 83 speed cameras and 81 red-light cameras that hauled in almost $20 million a year at their peak.

Averella said she understands the city wants to raise revenue, but the system should be seen primarily as a safety tool.

"Ideally what should happen is that the citations over a period of time should drop at these locations because the goal is not to see how many tickets you can give motorists but to have motorists change their behavior," she said.

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Speed camera locations

•Frederick Douglass High School: 1800-2400 block of Gwynns Falls Parkway, eastbound

•Vanguard Collegiate Middle School: 5400-5700 block Moravia Road, north and southbound

•Holy Angels Catholic School: 900-1200 block of South Caton Avenue, northbound

•Edmondson Westside High School: 4200-4500 block of Edmondson Avenue, east and westbound

•Glenmount Elementary/Middle School: 5900-6400 Walther Avenue, northbound

•Baltimore Polytechnic Institute/Western High School: 1200-1600 West Cold Spring Lane, east and westbound

•Gwynns Falls Elementary School: 2600-2800 Gwynns Falls Parkway, westbound

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