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Baltimore replacing entire speed camera system

Baltimore officials said Monday they are scrapping all 83 of the city's automated speed cameras and "methodically" replacing them with newer models, after a Baltimore Sun investigation found errors with the system.

The overhaul, estimated to cost about $2.2 million, comes after the city's new speed camera contractor, Brekford Corp., analyzed Baltimore's system and concluded the only way to cut down on the errors was to replace all the cameras with newer models, the company said.

Maurice R. Nelson, managing director of Brekford, said hiring enough employees and police officers to catch all the errors the old cameras were generating would be too expensive.

"The old radar cameras have not progressed with technology," Nelson said, adding that new cameras with "tracking" technology can focus on and follow a specific car and cut down on machine-created errors. "We want to rely on the systems and less on humans, who make errors. If you're using the old radar cameras and it's picking up something that's not the car in the photograph, you leave yourself open to errors."

City Transportation Department spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes called the new cameras "state of the art" and said some camera locations would need to be taken offline during the upgrade. The current cameras, some of which were originally red-light cameras upgraded to catch speeders, range in age, with some purchased recently and others in use for a decade or more.

Del. Curt S. Anderson, the chairman of Baltimore's state legislative delegation, applauded the city's announcement.

"If there is not a great degree of confidence in the cameras, then yes, make the change," he said.

But he wants the city's contractor and not taxpayers to foot the bill.

"I know how government works," Anderson said. "Nobody wants to say the taxpayers are paying for it. They'll say the money is coming out of future revenues from the program."

City officials did not respond to a question about financing the upgrade. Nelson said he planned to charge the city about $55,000 for each new camera purchased.

The Sun reported on scores of erroneous tickets during its investigation, including one violation issued to a minivan that was sitting motionless at a red light.

The city's former speed camera vendor, Xerox State & Local Solutions, acknowledged last month that several of Baltimore's cameras have an error rate of greater than 5 percent. And the city's deputy transportation director said he no longer has full confidence in the accuracy of the radar in the city speed camera system, which has issued more than 1.6 million tickets since the first camera went online in late 2009.

Ian Brennan, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, stressed the importance of getting the camera program right.

"The administration has always taken camera accuracy seriously, and that is why Mayor Rawlings-Blake appointed a task force of transportation and safety experts to review the entire program," he said in an email. "At the same time, hundreds of thousands of motorists are illegally speeding in school zones; it's dangerous and the camera program has helped reduced speeding."

Transportation advocates applauded the purchase of new cameras.

"We are pleased that the city is making a good-faith effort by addressing the operational and technical issues that have really placed the automated speed camera program under scrutiny," said Ragina Averella, government and public affairs manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic and a member of the mayor's task force. "This is certainly a step in the right direction."

But Ron Ely, editor of an anti-speed-camera blog called Stop Big Brother Maryland, remained skeptical of the system, even if it is upgraded with new technology.

"That sounds very fancy," he said. "We'll see how it works out."

The volume of tickets generated under the old system also led to some problems, city officials have said. Last year, the city collected more than $19 million, and it is on track to make even more this fiscal year. But the frenetic pace of processing tickets meant that police officers were sometimes asked to analyze up to 1,200 per shift.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said Friday that his officers' rushed review of speed camera tickets has produced "unacceptable" mistakes and pledged "dramatic" reform of the system, including increased staffing.

Nelson said the new cameras might result in less revenue for the city because they will be more conservative in determining when a driver has exceeded the speed limit by 12 mph or more, the threshold in state law.

"The downside is our system will kick out more than not," Nelson said. "You have a system that will err on the side of the driver."

Baltimore City Councilman Robert W. Curran said it didn't bother him that the new cameras would likely generate less revenue.

"Obviously, we need to be accurate," he said. "It's not about the revenue. The public needs to be confident in the system."

City officials did not say when the replacement process will begin or how long it will take, and Barnes said the government will not publicize when cameras are offline "in the interest of public safety."

Even as the city pledged to buy new cameras, there appeared to be confusion about who is currently operating the city's speed cameras — or whether the cameras are operating at all.

The city's speed camera system has been in transition since Jan. 1, when Baltimore terminated its contract with Xerox, which served as the city's speed camera contractor since 2009. Hanover-based Brekford won a bidding competition to take over but has yet to sign a contract, according to Brekford.

Xerox spokesman Chris Gilligan said that on New Year's Eve, "our contract expired and the city began its transition to a new vendor." On Wednesday, Barbara Zektick, chairwoman of a city task force studying the cameras, said Brekford has "actively stepped in."

But Nelson said Monday that the company had not yet begun managing the city's cameras because it had not signed a contract.

"I have no idea," he said, when asked who is currently running the speed cameras. "As soon as the ink gets placed on the contract, I am prepared to do what we have to do."

Nelson said he believes the city's current crop of cameras suffer from several well-known radar errors, including beams measuring the biggest object on the road — but ticketing smaller ones — and bouncing off several objects, producing erroneous readings.

The new radar systems, he said, "won't make those same mistakes."

Ely said it's hard to say how much difference the new cameras might make because the city hasn't provided technical specifications of the existing cameras. Regardless of technology, he said the city will need to ensure a strong review process and employ a secondary verification method, such as painting white lines on the road to show how far a car travels in the split-second between the two photographs the cameras are required to produce under state law.

"Doing that type of verification is what will prevent errors in the future," Ely said. City officials "have to assume the devices are capable of being wrong. If they do otherwise, they'll wind up in the same situation later."

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

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