Baltimore City

Troubled transition shuts down city speed cameras

Baltimore's speed and red light camera system has experienced a near-complete shutdown during what city officials are calling a problematic transition to a new contractor, records show, and the new vendor says it could take four months to get its system running.

City officials acknowledged Tuesday that Baltimore's network of 83 speed cameras — which issued about 2,300 tickets each weekday last year — has yet to issue any in 2013. And records posted on a city website indicate that red light cameras have issued just 17 tickets, all in the first two days of the year.

The city could miss out on $1 million or more in speeding fines alone each month that the system stays dark.

Meanwhile, the city recently notified some motorists that they would receive refunds because they paid $40 speed camera citations that officials now believe were erroneous. Transportation officials gave few details Tuesday, saying only that 239 tickets would be voided and declining to explain how the city determined who was entitled to a refund or which cameras generated the faulty citations.

The bumpy transition and the issuance of refund notices are the latest signs of trouble for the lucrative automated enforcement network, which has generated tens of millions of dollars for the city in recent years. The Baltimore Sun has documented erroneous speed readings from several city radar cameras, including a speeding citation issued to a Mazda stopped at a red light, and has shown that judges routinely throw out tickets for a range of deficiencies.

Xerox State and Local Solutions, the city's contractor until Dec. 31, acknowledged that five cameras had error rates of 5 percent, prompting the city to take those offline late last year. Since then, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has publicly committed the city to replacing all of its speed cameras with newer models that use more sophisticated tracking radar.

City Solicitor George Nilson said in a recent interview that the city and its new vendor, Brekford Corp. of Hanover, have experienced "transitional problems." On Tuesday, he said the city, Xerox and Brekford have been working jointly to achieve the city's "overwhelming objective," which is a "smooth move from the former system to the new system with as little gap and as little disruption as possible."

The camera system typically gives out several thousand red light and speed camera tickets per day, with fewer on weekends — when only red light cameras are allowed to operate — and on holidays. On Christmas Day, the system generated 1,128 citations. On Jan. 1, 16 red light camera tickets were issued and just one ticket the day after. No tickets of either kind have been issued since Jan. 2, the city's website shows.

Nilson said Tuesday that he was unsure whether the speed cameras are generating tickets and referred questions to the city's Transportation Department.

"No citations have been issued since Jan. 1st," Adrienne Barnes, a spokeswoman for the department, wrote in an email Tuesday night.

Barnes said the process of replacing equipment "will require cameras to be temporarily taken offline until the new systems are properly calibrated." She said earlier this month that "in the interest of public safety, the city will not disclose when the cameras will be offline or where they are located."

If all cameras were to stay offline for an extended period, it could be costly for the city. From July through November, the city collected $9.6 million just in speed camera fines, about $90,000 per weekday. According to the city's budget, Baltimore expects to take in $11.4 million from speed cameras this fiscal year.

"We will take a bit of a revenue hit in the transition, undoubtedly," Nilson said.

Before Xerox's contract ended, Brekford had promised a seamless transition.

"Our plan involves taking over the existing system, with no downtime, and facilitating a transfer of ownership of all power and communications to the city," Brekford's chief executive, C.B. Brechin, wrote in a letter to city officials.

But Maurice R. Nelson, managing director of Brekford, said matters subsequently got more complicated. Xerox did not leave behind its software for the city's cameras when its contract ended, he said, and so Brekford could not operate the cameras.

"The only reason we haven't started is we were looking for some software," Nelson said. "I needed that software to begin our program."

Xerox contends that its software is proprietary, and company officials have referred questions to the city and to Brekford, saying they are no longer the city's vendor.

Last year when the city sought bids to operate a camera system, the official request for proposals noted in several places that vendors would have to supply their own software. In one place, the city document states: "All software necessary to operate the cameras shall be provided by the vendor."

In an Aug. 17 letter to a city transportation official, Xerox manager Ryan Nicolas said that while the city would own the cameras when the contract ended, it would not inherit the software. "If desired," he wrote, "the city can license the related proprietary software from Xerox pursuant to a mutually acceptable agreement."

"We continue to cooperate with the city to address any issues," Xerox spokesman Chris Gilligan said Tuesday.

According to Brekford's formal proposal, the company will need four months to have its own system of cameras and software installed and operational. If Brekford cannot obtain software licenses needed to run the existing cameras, the four-month timetable suggests it could be spring before the city's system is running at full strength.

Ragina Averella, government and media relations manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic and a member of a mayoral task force studying Baltimore's automated enforcement, said she did not fault city officials for being reluctant to share information about inoperative speed cameras with the public, out of concern that increased speeding would result.

"We don't think it would be surprising to anyone if the cameras are not operational during this transitional period," Averella said. "That being said, from a traffic safety standpoint, we recognize and understand the city's reluctance to publicize if the cameras are in fact not operational."

Meanwhile the city has begun refunding citations to some motorists, including Daniel Rogers of Parkville. A speed camera on West Cold Spring Lane snapped a picture of his car Feb. 1 while he was on his way to a painting job.

The citation alleged that he was doing 63 mph, but The Baltimore Sun determined — using two time-stamped photos from the camera and measuring the distance traveled on the pavement — that his car's actual speed was 27 mph.

Like many motorists, Rogers paid the $40 rather than take the time to challenge the citation in court.

Earlier this month he received a letter from the city that began: "This letter is to inform you that you may have received a speeding citation in error. Due to a processing error, the City of Baltimore has voided the above citation."

The letter from the Transportation Department went on to state that the city was "working diligently to rectify this error." It said: "In this case, you will not be responsible for the citation issued, but please be advised that speeding can result in personal injuries, monetary fines, loss of driving privileges and the inability to register motor vehicles."

Days later he got a $40 check in the mail.

Rogers said he was pleased to get the refund but wishes the city had repaid him with interest and admitted the error. He said he didn't appreciate the "slap" about the importance of not speeding because he wasn't speeding.

"Yes, I got my money back," he said. "But they didn't offer an apology, didn't admit to the mistake and didn't reimburse me for that lost year of money."