Bill would force changes to city speed camera sites

Quick: Name the school closest to North Charles Street and Lake Avenue in North Baltimore.

Stumped? The city's Department of Transportation has the answer: It's the Bryn Mawr School, less than a half-mile southwest of the intersection as the crow flies over the trees and side streets.

The distance matters. Charles and Lake is the site of one of the city's 75 permanent speed cameras. Under state law, the devices must lie within a half-mile of a school, or 2,640 feet. With its hundreds of schools, Baltimore is essentially one giant potential school zone, as the accompanying map shows.

But that could change. Legislation introduced by state Sen. James Brochin would turn voluntary state guidelines into law. Those guidelines urge local governments to limit the cameras to 500 feet of a school's property.

Bryn Mawr falls outside the 500-foot zone, as do a number of other schools in whose names the city has installed cameras under existing law. So the change, if approved by the General Assembly, would force the city to reconfigure its camera network. The only question is by how much.

"We would have to map out the property lines and take measurements," said Adrienne Barnes, a spokeswoman for the city Department of Transportation.

A shake-up is precisely what Brochin, a Towson Democrat, has in mind. A longtime speed camera foe, he hopes to achieve various reforms with the legislation, which he drafted after a Baltimore Sun investigation documented erroneous citations being issued by several city cameras.

"They've taken the law and really stretched the intent massively," he said of how the city has put some cameras several blocks from schools. By contrast, he praised Baltimore County for placing its cameras closer to schools. City officials defend the half-mile rule because they say many city kids walk to school from all directions.

No city schools are used to justify more cameras than Dunbar High School, with five around its East Baltimore campus, or Douglass High on the west side, also with five.

In response to a request from The Sun, the city provided a list of every school associated with its more than 150 speed camera locations. In addition to the 75 permanent camera sites, Baltimore rotates eight portable units among 80 or so other locations. The complete list is available online. The city has begun replacing all its cameras.

Brochin said the Charles and Lake camera has long irked him. Many of his county constituents have been ticketed because the speed limit drops from 40 mph to 30 just below the city-county line. And for a long time he couldn't figure out which school the city officially linked to that camera.

Until last year, the city said the camera was meant to protect children who attend preschool at Church of the Redeemer on Charles. But after being challenged by AAA Mid-Atlantic, the city limited its cameras only to schools serving kindergarten through 12th grade. Church of the Redeemer was out.

Rather than remove the camera, the city found a new school: Bryn Mawr, a tucked-away private girls' school. Most of its students are driven to school, with roughly half going via Charles and half via Northern Parkway, said spokeswoman Stacy Williams. She couldn't comment on the camera's effectiveness but did say the school is "all for people abiding by the speed limit and for traffic safety."

To Brochin, the school makes no sense as justification. "I don't know anybody that walks to Bryn Mawr," he said. "I see a lot of cars going into a private driveway. I don't see what that possibly has to do with Charles and Lake. But I do see the speed limit going down 10 mph, and I do see them nabbing a bunch of unsuspecting people who are like, 'Where is the school?'"

Scott Calvert