Monday, February 12, 2018

Legislation Would Require Longer Yellow Light Times

The Maryland Legislature is considering a bill which would increase the minimum amount of time which yellow lights are required to display at locations where red light cameras are in use.

House Bill 204 was sponsored by State Delegate Marc Korman (D, Montgomery County), and would raise the minimum time which a yellow light is required to display to 4 seconds.  Current law is complicated.  A federal rule requires yellow lights to be "between 3 and 6 seconds.  A separate state regulation also requires a calculation to be performed in a specific manner, notably that a formula using "the greater of the speed limit or the 85th percentile speed be used", and a separate SHA policy adopted in 2003 requires that yellow lights be no less than 3.5 seconds regardless of this calculation.   The bill was written in response to a preliminary investigation by the Office of Inspector General which found that the SHA policy had not been consistently applied.

The bill would require that yellow times be more generous, and would explicitly require that yellow lights be no less than 4 seconds regardless of the calculations wherever red light cameras are in use. 

The hearing for the bill was heard before the Environment and Transportation Committee on February 8th.   AAA Mid Atlantic testified for the bill, and argued that the bill would reduce red light running and improve safety for motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists.  The bill was also supported by the Maryland Drivers Alliance, and we noted that study after study has shown that longer yellow lights reduce rates of red light running and improve safety.  We noted in our testimony that it is currently virtually impossible for a defendant to have yellow light timing formulas admitted in defense of a citation without an expert witness, noting that we have observed district court judges who have been assigned over 100 cases in a single two hour session who refused to even look at math calculations for yellow light times, and we proposed an amendment that would have required mathematical calculations to be considered as evidence.

A specific case of an intersection at Georgia Avenue at Seminary Road, where a marked decline in red light running occurred after a yellow light was lengthened by just half a second, was cited as an example.  Prior to December 2016, the intersection had a left turn signal which was configured with a 3 second yellow light, which did not comply with the SHA adopted policy requiring a 3.5 second minimum.  The light had furthermore been timed using a calculation using "the average of the posted speed limit and 20mph" RATHER THAN the requirement spelled out in state regulation COMAR 11.04.14  (Montgomery County does this at NUMEROUS locations, despite guidance to the contrary in the SHA signal timing manual).  After an investigation by the Maryland Drivers Alliance, the left turn yellow was increased to 3.5s in December of 2016.   Data obtained by the Maryland Drivers Alliance showed that a marked decline in violations took place after the light was retimed.
Left Lane RLC Violations at Georgia Avenue at Seminary Road
We have been working since 2016 to obtain data from Montgomery County which would show the detailed yellow times, red times, and lane for violations at this location.  The county had initially denied the request, and then demanded a $19,000 fee which the MPIA compliance board deemed excessive.  The County finally agreed to produce the data in return for a $990 fee.  The data appeared to show that prior to the light being re-timed, out of the four lanes being monitored, more than 55% were assigned to the left turn lane.  After the 0.5second increase, the number of violations assigned to the left lane appeared to have declined approximately 67%.   While correlation does not prove causality, if even a fraction of this reduction were attributable to the yellow light increase that would appear to be a significant safety benefit.  The data further showed that up to another 40% of the remaining left turn red light running violations were within 0.5s of the light turning red, meaning up to another 40% of the left turn violations might also disappear if the left turn yellow was increased another half second to match the 4.0s time on the straight through approach.

Montgomery County has repeatedly asserted there was "no public interest" in the disclosure of this data. No refunds were issued for citations at Georgia Avenue where the signal was non-compliant with SHA policy, despite the fact that the county had been reminded of this policy by an SHA memo  in May of 2015.

No local government officials appeared in person to oppose HB 204.  However the Maryland Association of Counties (MACO), a lobbying organization which represents county governments including the six counties which run red light camera programs, and which often opposes bills which local governments officials are afraid to oppose in person.  When asked by a committee member whether MACO's opposition to the bill was due to possible loss of revenue, MACO responded it was not. The Fiscal policy notes for HB 204 state "Potentially, then,  the  duration  of  some  yellow  lights  could  increase  by  as  much  as  one  second.  Accordingly, the number of violations captured by red light cameras at those intersections may decrease significantly and result in fewer citations."  and also stated "Local  government  revenues  for  jurisdictions  operating  red  light  camera systems  decrease, potentially significantly,  beginning  in  FY  2019."  The observed reduction in left lane violations at Georgia Ave at Seminary Road would work out to about $100,000 per year in revenue for just one lane at one camera location.

The bill is currently before the Environment and Transportation Committee.

Additional Information:
Text Of HB204
Fiscal Policy Notes for HB204
WTOP: MD Bill wants drivers seeing more yellow, not red, at traffic lights
Fox5 News: Proposed Bill Would Increase the Length of Yellow Signals at Red Light Camera Intersections in Maryland

Monday, January 8, 2018

Attorney General References Photo Enforcement Cases in Public Information Act Report

A recent report on the Implementation of the Maryland Public Information Act by the Maryland office of Attorney General references two pubic records disputes raised by the Maryland Drivers Alliance, demonstrating how matters pertaining to photo enforcement are are having an influence on the understanding of government transparency affecting a broader range of issues.

The report references cases pertain to the matter of "NonGovernment Custodians", documenting that records maintained by a non-government custodian are considered public records if they pertain to a function that would normally be carried out by the government.  Page 30 of the report states:
Lying at the public end of the spectrum are speed camera vendors, which essentially perform a governmental function—enforcement of speed limits. In much the same way that the government cannot avoid the PIA by storing its public records with a private vendor, there is some force to the argument that the government should not be able to avoid the PIA by delegating its public responsibilities to a private vendor. Although there are no reported appellate decisions on the topic here in Maryland, we are aware of one circuit court decision in which the court appears to have concluded that the government violated the PIA by not disclosing records maintained by its third-party speed camera vendor. See Ely v. Town of Morningside, Order, CAL12-23425 (Pr. G. Cir. Ct., May 29, 2014); see also, e.g., Ark. Op. Atty. Gen. 2008-154 (Nov. 12, 2008) (concluding that state public records law applied to private company  Final Report of the Office of the Attorney General on the Implementation of the Public Information Act 31 hired to operate school bus system because that was “a task that would otherwise be conducted by the [government]”).
The case "Ely vs Morningside" was brought to the court by the editor of the Maryland Drivers Alliance website, after the Town of Morningside refused a request for speed calibration records that were legally required to be kept.  Judge Albert Northrop argued this was inappropriate: "Respondent argued that the records were not in its possession because they were held by a contractor.  To allow public records held by a contractor to be exempt from the Public Information Act would render the entire act ineffective."

It is notable that the manner of Morningside's denial was that the town completely refused to acknowledge the existence of the public records of these records, attempting to create a "legal fiction" that because the records were not physically in their possession they did not exist at all, even though they knew the vendor was maintaining them on their behalf.  The town even went so far as to assert that they did not operate a speed camera program at all, presumably on the grounds that the contractor ran almost the entire program. This highlights how local governments have at times attempted to use the existence of a non-government custodian as a way of creating confusion and avoid directly responding to a request or complaint, attempting to conceal records by misdirection rather than an an outright denial.  Fortunately, in this case, the circuit court did not permit itself to be misled in that way.

The OAG report also states on page 31:
"Since our Interim Report was issued, the PIA Compliance Board issued an opinion that touches upon this issue. The Board concluded that, under the facts presented to the Board, a municipal government was obligated to seek records from its third-party speed camera vendor if doing so would provide a less expensive means of responding to a PIA request. See PIACB-17-07 (Feb. 28, 2017)."
The aforementioned MPIA Compliance Board opinion involved a request from the Maryland Drivers Alliance website, after the Montgomery County government attempted to charge over $19,000 for access to records pertaining to the details of red light camera violations collected at a location where a yellow light had a time shorter than the minimum time specified by a State Highway Administration policy.  In the aforementioned case, the Montgomery County Government first outright denied access to a small sample of "yellow time" "red time" and other data pertaining to red light running violations on three separate instances.  After a second request for a larger set of electronic data was submitted, the MCPD instead of denying this separate request instead attempted to charge a fee of over $19,000, and also denied a request for a "public interest fee waiver".  The fee for the second request (and only the second request) was brought to the MPIA Compliance board.  The county repeatedly asserted that a manual retrieval process requiring printing thousands of individual paper citations was the only means of satisfying the request, while ignoring the fact that  the physical custodian of the records was the red light camera vendor and that the vendor would likely have another source of data in an electronic format and the capacity to retrieve the information far more cheaply.  Even after it was proven that the vendor did in fact have another source of this data, and the vendor confirmed they could retrieve the data at 1/10th the cost, the county continued to assert that they need not use the vendor to pull this data.  The board determined that it is reasonable for the county to utilize their vendor to retrieve records, and stated on that basis that that $1980 was the maximum "estimated fee" that the county could charge, although indicated that the fee still needed to be further refined.

However the MPIA Compliance Board was granted extremely limited authority by the legislature, and has no authority to consider "public interest fee waivers" or denials of records such as the denial our first request.  Therefore the denial of the first request and the county's denial of the Public Interest fee waiver have since been brought to the circuit court and is now pending trial.  Montgomery County has thus far attempted to confuse the issues in the court case by avoid responding to the allegation that they outright denied the first request, even though the custodian put this denial in writing twice.

The Maryland Drivers Alliance has worked tirelessly, with the support of organizations such as the nonprofit National Motorist Association Foundation, to ensure the transparency of automated traffic enforcement programs.  We realized some time ago that photo enforcement programs were just one example of a situation where records pertaining to the function of government relevant to matters of significant public concern were being kept in the hands of non-government custodians, and that existing case law in Maryland left the question of access to such records ill-defined.  More and more, governments are utilizing private contractors to carry out functions traditionally performed by government, and we now live in a time when records might be stored on a database run by a contractor or in a private cloud server operated by Microsoft of Amazon rather than a machine physically located in a government office.  The Maryland Drivers Alliance is pleased that our efforts have helped to further the understanding of public records law generally and we hope that media organizations and activist organizations involved in other issues will benefit from efforts to ensure that public records cannot be concealed or placed behind excessive fee barriers simply by outsourcing the storage and maintenance of records to a private contractor.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Montgomery County Public Information officer Says Council Needs to Listen, Discusses Transporations Issues

A former spokesperson for the Montgomery County Council who announced his candidacy for his bosses' job says the council is not listening to their voters.   Neil Greenberger was the legislative information officer for the county council for 11 years, and more recently the public information officer for the office of the county executive, and he is now running for an at-large county council seat.  Greenberger minced no words about his feelings about his former bosses openness to listening to their constituents “There’s been too much of telling people what they need and a lot less of listening to what voters want."

Greenberger questioned the county's approach to development and roads, asserting that the county has approved plans for new development without first addressing the need for new roads, parking, and schools.  “In Bethesda, they approved a plan for 20- and 30-story buildings with no new roads and reduced parking places,” Greenberger said. “Where are the people going to park? There are still people who still love their car. Nine people voting cannot change the culture of Montgomery County that has been built up for generations.”  Greenberger was critical of the county's approach to roads, specifically including the county's decision not to proceed with plans to build the M-83 MidCounty Corridor, stating  "Completing the M-83 highway to relieve congestion on I-270 and throughout the Upper County needs to be a priority, not a continuation of a 50-year plan. We must take steps to build M-83 NOW."  He noted that only one-quarter of road resurfacing projects suggested by the County Department of Transportation ended up in the approved County budget of last year.

Greenberger says some aspects of the county speed camera program need to be considered.  Although he states he supports speed camera, but argues that some speed cameras have been placed in unfair locations simply to raise income and server little purpose.   "We need to look at how these cameras are placed. Montgomery County should be above having speed cameras hidden behind bushes, on downhill slopes and in places designed simply to trap unsuspecting drivers." and "This County does not need to trick its drivers to raise money".

Unfortunately any calls for reconsideration in speed camera locations are likely to hit a brick wall in the Montgomery County bureaucracy.   Montgomery County ATEU states that speed camera locations are selected by a "Citizens Advisory Board on Traffic Issues".  However in fact "citizens" are not permitted to attend the meetings of this "citizens advisory board" where speed camera locations and pending speed camera legislation are discussed.  The group has operated in total secrecy, has members who were chosen by the MCPD based on their support for the cameras, is closed to the public and press, and does not keep minutes for any of their meetings.  Calls for more openness in this process by the Maryland Drivers Alliance and the Greater Olney Area Civics Association were rebuffed by the county government.


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Opinion: First Day of I-66 Tolls Provides Cautionary Tale On Congestion Pricing

On the first day in which "congestion priced" tolls were charged on I-66 inside the beltway, many motorists were surprised to see morning tolls spike at over $34, according to a report by WTOP news.

The new tolls fluctuated wildly during the day, with some morning commuters paying over $34 one way to travel just ten miles, and others paying just $8 for the same distance.

Some motorists believed they had been misled about what toll rates would be, given that previous reports claimed that "the high end of tolls on a typical day at around $9 at the busiest times".  WTOP reported that a local advocacy group, "The 66 Alliance", to claim Northern Virginia commuters had been sold a bill of goods: "The 66 Alliance calls on VDOT to suspend the I-66 toll program immediately and for the Virginia General Assembly to investigate VDOT, Secretary Layne and the I-66 toll program before the program is permitted to be re-launched" stated the group's press release.

Authorities in VDOT asserted the system was working as designed, stating "Overall, we were pleased, and things ran smoothly".

The tolls on I-66 follow a model of "Congestion pricing", in which tolls are raised or lowered based on the volume of traffic.  Congestion pricing is widely supported by the tolling industry, and by some quasi-government organizations who see it as a solution to obtaining funds without the need for legislators to be held accountable for raising gas taxes.  

However, as this and other instances show what can happen if motorists are given no say on what toll rates are set at and if lawmakers are shielded from responsibility for toll rates.  This is not the first time Virginia motorists have balked at fees which mysterious and fickle congestion pricing models have produced.  This past winter some motorists using the 495 express lanes near Vienna were stunned to learn that they had been charged $30 for a single trip due to the effects of a snow storm.

Motorists will likely not be given a seat at the table to determine whether congestion pricing will be used or whether another solution should be found.  Pilot studies into congestion pricing and the even more ambition idea of "vehicle mile traveled" (VMT) fees and have been conducted in the DC area.  Yet these pilots have revolved around how to SELL the idea to the public and how to go about introducing such fees, rather than taking seriously the concerns raised about them -- concerns not just about the fairness in the amount of fees, but also the enormous privacy concerns involved which broad ideas like the VMT fees raise.  Maryland is certainly going to see more congestion priced systems introduced in the future. The ICC already uses a form of congestion priced model, and the new regional toll lanes recently proposed by Governor Hogan are likely to be congestion priced.  And unlike gas taxes, toll rates are not set by the legislature so lawmakers need never have their votes on the amount of tolls recorded for the people to review.  In the past two years, legislation was introduced which would forbid the creation of a VMT tax in Maryland, a fee that would amount to creating congestion pricing on ALL roads, and the bill died in committee: Apparently some lawmakers in the Maryland House of Delegates wish to reserve the possibility of imposing congestion pricing on ALL existing roads in their back pocket for the future even if they don't want to talk about this openly.

Many believe congestion pricing is a good solution to solving a nearly unsolvable problem of traffic congestion, allowing people to decide the value of their own time spent sitting in traffic.  But there is a down side in that it actually provides a financial incentive for local and state governments NOT to spend our gas tax dollars or toll dollars providing pursuing other traffic congestion solutions and ensuring that those who cannot afford high tolls have an alternative, since Tolling companies and agencies will actually bring in more money the worse traffic gets. 

A WTOP poll of I-66 commuters seemed to show that most commuters did not believe the tolls had made their commutes better.  62% of respondents who used I-66 believed their commute had gotten "worse" or "significantly worse" since the tolling began, and only 25% thought it had made things better.  Only 11% of users stated they would consider using HOV, ostensibly the reason for having tolls for non-hov users, and 65% stated they would still drive but take other routes.  Some frustrated commuters have complained about a false narrative being presented by some officials that I-66 was previously HOV-only in order to paint those unhappy with the toll rates as "HOV cheaters" in order to deflect attention from claims of price gouging.  In fact I-66 was previously HOV-only during a very limited window of hours and a great many motorists were legally using this road outside the HOV-only window, which was greatly expanded when tolling began forcing motorists who could not afford the tolls onto already overcrowded arterial roads.  In fact plans are also on the books to tighten the screws on HOV-2 users by changing I-66 to HOV-3, possibly as soon as 2020, forcing many current carpoolers to either pay the tolls or find other routes.

Free market solutions are really good at solving many problems.  But diehard libertarians should bear in mind that toll roads are NOT free market solutions, they are government sanctioned monopolies.   An entrepreneur or fortune 500 company cannot simply come in and built their own road which offers a better rate.  As such, it is elected officials who should be responsible for ensuring that the maximum cost per mile is not allowed to be set too high, and held responsible if that is not done.  Left unchecked, massively high tolls provide an alternative fast route only for the very very wealthy, rather than funding new travel routes which actually provide some relief to taxpayer-financed commuter roads as some thought they were promised would happen.  Motorists with less extravagant budgets would be well advised to not wait to demand a bigger seat at the table in setting limits on tolls, if for no other reason than to ensure the wealthy have some actual skin in the game of solving traffic problems just like everyone else does.

Additional Coverage:

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Have You Gotten a Ticket for a LEFT Turn?

The Maryland Drivers Alliance is looking for individuals who have received red light camera citations for making a LEFT turn on red. We are particularly interested in contacting individuals who have received such citations from Montgomery County or the City of Rockville, but are seeking such data from other locations in the state as well. 

If you have received such a citation and wish to help an important investigation that will benefit motorists and traffic safety, we ask that you please contact us at, and provide us with the location, speed limit, "Yellow Time", "Red Time", and date shown on your violation if that information was provided to you.  Your personal information will be kept confidential.  Thank you.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Hogan Calls for New Network of Express Toll Lanes

Governor Larry Hogan has unveiled a $9billion plan to widen I-270, I-495, and the Baltimore Washington Parkway with a network of express toll lanes. The plan would involve adding approximately 100 miles of new lanes to the Beltway, I-270, and the Baltimore Washington Parkway.  Private companies would begin submitting bids to build the new lanes within six months.  The model would be similar to the express toll lanes used on the Virginia side of I-495.

The plan has drawn praise from tolling Companies and from AAA, but has been harshly criticized by "smart growth advocates" who favor transit, and from some members of the state legislature.

The plan will likely face numerous challenges before it proceeds.  An environmental impact study would need to be performed, a vendor selected, and there will likely be court challenges before the plan can proceed.

=========== Governor's Press Release ===============
$9 Billion Traffic Relief Plan, Largest Highway P3 in North America RFI Released Today
ANNAPOLIS, MD – Delivering on his commitment to provide innovative transportation solutions for Maryland, Governor Larry Hogan today announced the administration’s plans to add four new lanes to I-270, the Capital Beltway (I-495), and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (MD 295). The $9 billion Traffic Relief Plan for these three major state highways will reduce congestion for millions of drivers and mark the beginning of a historic and transformative effort to significantly improve the traffic conditions on some of Maryland’s most traveled roads and highways for years to come.

These three massive, unprecedented projects to widen I-495, I-270, and MD 295 will be absolutely transformative, and they will help Maryland citizens go about their daily lives in a more efficient and safer manner,” said Governor Hogan. “Today, we are turning Maryland’s celebrated innovation into real action. These projects will substantially and dramatically improve our state highway system and traffic in the region.

Joining the governor were Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) Secretary Pete K. Rahn, MDOT State Highway Administrator Greg Slater, Maryland Transportation Authority Executive Director Kevin Reigrut, as well as elected officials and community and business representatives from throughout the Baltimore-Washington region.

Today’s announcement officially begins the process to solicit the Public-Private Partnership (P3) industry for input and solutions to provide major congestion relief to these key transportation routes. With the total project estimated value at $9 billion, the P3 portion to add four new lanes on both I-495 and I-270 is the largest proposed P3 highway project in North America. The P3 will be seeking private developers to design, build, finance, operate, and maintain new lanes on I-495 between the American Legion Bridge and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and on I-270 between I-495 and I-70. Once completed, the Traffic Relief Plan will deliver new express toll lanes, in addition to existing lanes, on I-495, I-270, and MD 295.

Using innovation and partnering with some of the greatest minds in the world, Maryland is going to finally get some congestion relief by investing $9 billion in three of the most congested highways in the state,” said Secretary Rahn.

The first step to build new express toll lanes on MD 295 will begin with the transfer of MD 295 from the U.S. Department of the Interior to the Maryland Transportation Authority. Governor Hogan has already personally started this process during a recent meeting with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and has directed MDOT officials to move forward with the transfer negotiations. Following the transfer, the Maryland Transportation Authority would then build, operate, and maintain the new lanes and maintain existing lanes between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

The Traffic Relief Plan announced today is critical to spurring increased economic development and restoring quality of life for countless Marylanders who have been negatively affected by years of traffic congestion. Maryland has the second-longest commuting times in the country, and the National Capital Region is the most congested region in the nation based on annual delay and congestion cost per auto-commuter. The statewide cost of congestion based on auto delay, truck delay, and wasted fuel and emissions was estimated at $2 billion in 2015. This is an increase of 22 percent from the $1.7 billion estimated cost of congestion in 2013. More than 98 percent of the weekday congestion cost was incurred in the Baltimore/Washington region.

In making this announcement today, Governor Hogan has directed MDOT to issue the Request for Information to the P3 industry and continue the transfer process with the U.S. Department of the Interior

Do you agree with Governor Hogan's new Express Toll Lane plan?

(poll results may take a few moments to update)
Baltimore Sun: $9 billion highway project would widen 3 major Maryland roadways with toll lanes
WTOP:  Hogan proposes $9B plan to add new lanes to Beltway, 270 and BW Parkway

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Opinion: Montgomery County's "Admit Nothing, Keep the Loot" Policy

Frequently, we at the Maryland Drivers Alliance find ourselves criticizing programs like Baltimore City's speed camera program, which had a long pattern of issuing erroneous citatinos.  But in fairness, we rightly should give credit to Baltimore's photo enforcement program for one thing: in at least some cases in the past, Baltimore City's program has ADMITTED to making mistakes.  And in the most recent instance where Baltimore messed up on the first day back in business by issuing hundreds of erroneous duplicate tickets, they voided or refunded all those tickets.  It's appropriate to point out that at least in some cases, Baltimore City's program did the right thing by admitting to errors and issuing refunds when they were in fact at fault.

There have been other cases such as in speed camera programs in Greenbelt and Hagerstown, where the cities refunded at least some citations and admit the truth after annual calibrations were allowed to lapse.  While we have in the past cited these as examples of things programs have done wrong, we should also rightly give these programs credit for NOT simply hiring a team of attorneys to cover their tracks and finding a way to keep improperly gained ticket revenue.  When an agency breaks the rules, the ethical thing to do is to void or refund all the tickets, not to argue that it is OK for the government to break the law or to try and invent bizarre legal loopholes to justify an improper action or errors after the fact.

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett
But not all programs believe in admitting mistakes and refunding tickets.  And the prime example to that is the "model" photo enforcement program in Montgomery County.   The Montgomery County Government wrote the book on the principal of "Admit Nothing and Keep the Loot".  In the "Baker vs Montgomery County" case, Montgomery County spent thousands of dollars worth of taxpayer money fighting for the principal of government immunity, successfully establishing the legal precedent that no matter what a speed camera program does wrong, no matter what defect might exist in their system, no matter what rules, standards, or laws were broken by a local government, in Maryland a photo enforcement program cannot be sued to compel refunds.  Thanks to this ruling, in Maryland, "The Crown Can Do No Wrong".

We have observed this program living up to the "ideal" of "once you have their money, never give it back".  When it was discovered that Montgomery County had been systematically failing to record daily calibration logs for their equipment, the agency's initial response was to state "we're not going to do those tests every day", and to not issue refunds for the THOUSANDS of citations which had been issued without valid calibration records.  Years later, we confirmed that the legally required calibrations did not exist, and the citations issued on those days had never been refunded.   When we asked Montgomery County's  "Ombudsman" (who was in fact the deputy director of the speed camera program and not in any way independent) to investigate this matter, to which he eventually responded "As Montgomery County’s Local Designee, I will conduct a review of citations issued on weekends and holidays during 2009, 2010, and 2011 to determine whether or not it was systematically the case that the Montgomery County Police issued speed camera citations for violations that occurred on days when no daily set-up logs were filled out and signed, and no Montgomery County operators were on duty.  And I will provide you, Mr. Ely (the requestor) with a written response describing my findings."  More than a full year later,  we have yet to see the "findings" from this "investigation" by the "Ombudsman".  Two complaints sent to the "Ombudsman" about this in October of 2016 were never responded to.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Baltimore's Speed Camera Program Screws Up On Day One

Baltimore City's speed camera program issued $38,480 worth of erroneous citations on the first day the program resumed after being shut down since 2013 due to previous errors, according to a report by the Baltimore Sun.

Baltimore City's speed camera program had been shut down since 2013 due to systematic errors by their program, including tickets given to stationary vehicles, and big rig trucks falsely cited for traveling at twice their actual speed.  Two independent audits of Baltimore's speed camera program found that 5-10%. of tickets issued were actually due to errors, with tickets going to vehicles that were in fact not speeding.  Baltimore's contractor at the time was forced to admit to the errors and the program was shut down.

The city's speed camera program began ticketing again on July 31, 2017 with a new vendor, American Traffic Solutions.  However on the first day in operation, the cameras coughed up hundreds of duplicate citations, citing
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh
Unfortunately the July 31st violation file was submitted twice, causing two notices to be sent for some of the violations that were captured on that day,” company spokesman Charles Territo admitted in a statement. 

Before being shut down in 2013, Baltimore's speed camera program was bringing in $20million/year in revenue.  Mayor Catherine Pugh had welcomed the return of the speed camera program.  But City Comptroller Joan Pratt objected to the program's restart and abstained from the vote to restart the program, stating that she was not confident the program would be run correctly, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Oh Baltimore Speed Cameras, such memories you bring back for us....

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Traffic Improvement Project for I-270 Begins

On July 11, Governor Larry Hogan announced the start of construction of the $97.71 million I-270 interchange project at Watkins Mill Road. This major congestion relief project will improve one of Maryland’s most heavily traveled roadways in Montgomery County, benefiting tens of thousands of travelers who drive the I-270 corridor.
As we kick off construction of the new Watkins Mill interchange, we are delivering a much-needed missing link – a new east-west route across I-270 that improves access to the Metropolitan Grove MARC Station and supports the planned growth and economic development in this region,” said Governor Hogan. “We are making sure Maryland will continue to be open for business, and we are helping the citizens of Montgomery County, and people all across the state, go about their daily lives in a faster, more efficient, and safer manner.
The 1.25-mile project extends between MD 124 (Montgomery Village Avenue) and the Great Seneca Creek crossing near Game Preserve Road in Gaithersburg.
Source: Office of Governor Larry Hogan

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Montgomery County Red Light Violations Drop 50% After Yellow Light Retimed

Violations issued by a Montgomery County red light camera declined more than 50% after the yellow light timing was increased in response to concerns raised by local media and by the Maryland Drivers Alliance that the light did not meet standards set by the SHA.  However the county government is refusing to issue refunds even after the Office of Inspector General found 13% of traffic signals had yellow lights out of compliance with current Maryland SHA policy.

The red light camera located at Georgia Avenue at Seminary Road was issuing citations for the left turn lane displaying a yellow time of only 2.9 seconds, which is shorter than any yellow light in the US is supposed to be timed at under any circumstances. After further investigation, it was discovered that the Maryland State Highway administration had adopted a policy that traffic signals should be timed according to a specific formula, and that regardless of the calculations no light should be shorter than 3.5 seconds (the formula requires a higher yellow time in most cases where the speed limit is greater than 35mph).

In 2016, county officials refused to talk to WJLA news about this traffic signal on camera, but initially told the station and the Maryland Drivers Alliance that the SHA policy was new in 2015. In fact, this policy had been established in 2003. When the Maryland Drivers Alliance asked the county to explain why they had initially claimed the policy was new, the county Automated Traffic Enforcement Unit (ATEU) manager refused to provide an answer. The county claimed the signal was timed to 3 seconds, not 2.9, however both the Maryland Drivers Alliance, WJLA, and the county's own equipment timed the actual yellow light at slightly shorter than 3 seconds. 

The County has also acknowledged that yellow light times have been calculated by applying speeds lower than the speed limit, which is explicitly a violation of Maryland SHA regulations for timing yellow lights.  This produces yellow light times shorter than what the correctly applied formula would produce if Maryland regulations were followed.  The County has also rounded the results of these calculation down to the nearest half second, when is also prohibited by state regulations.  The net result is that some traffic signals in Montgomery County had been configured with yellow light times for left turn signals shorter than the correctly applied regulations call for.  However the county DOT and ATEU continue to admit no fault in the timing of these lights, citing standards used by other jurisdictions outside Maryland which are less stringent than the SHA's adopted standards.

Under scrutiny from the media, in December of 2016 the county department of Transportation increased the left turn signal yellow time for the signal at Georgia Avenue at Seminary Road to 3.5 seconds. Since then this camera saw a marked drop in violations compared to last year.

Between January 2016 and May 2016, the red light camera at Georgia Avenue at Seminary Road issued 1500 citations. For the same five months in 2017, the first full months after the signal timing change, this same camera issued only 719 citations, a 52% decrease. Every month in 2017 the citation issuance rate was lower than the same month in 2016, according to statistics the county publishes to their website.

Most other cameras were not retimed and did not see a similar large decline during the same time period.  You can see the original red light camera data reports taken from the Montgomery County Website here:

Numerous studies have shown that longer yellow light times significantly reduce the rate of red light running, and that in fact a short yellow light can literally CAUSE a red light running violation.  In this particular case, the 50% reduction in violations occurred after the yellow time occurred after a yellow time increase of ONLY ½ second in ONLY ONE LANE. 

Based on the reduction in tickets, this camera was producing approximately $11,000 per month more revenue before the left turn signal yellow light was retimed to comply with the SHA's 3.5 second minimum.  For the first ten months of 2016, the camera at Georgia Avenue at Seminary road with the 4rth highest grossing camera in the county.  For the first 5 months in 2017, after the signal timing change, it dropped to the 12th most profitable.

Other yellow light times in Montgomery County may still be set shorther than the properly applied SHA standards. The county government's written statements have defended the application of standards less stringent than the SHA's adopted policies, indicating that this was done at numerous other locations.  A report by the Montgomery County Office of Inspector General confirmed that the SHA policy was in fact adopted by the state in 2003, and concluded that 13% of traffic signals in Montgomery County had times which did not meet the SHA's 3.5 second minimum timing policy. It's not clear at this time whether the OIG investigated whether other times failed to meet the formulas specified by the SHA, in addition to simply meeting the 3.5 second minimum.

The Maryland Drivers Alliance sought to obtain more detailed data than is published to the county website showing “yellow times” and "red times" for individual citations.  This would have documented precisely how many violations were directly attributable to the yellow times at red light camera locations for this left turn signal, and would have made a detailed engineering study into the impact of applying the SHA yellow light timing standards compared to the more lax standards used by the Montgomery County Government. However the Montgomery County Police Department initially declined to provide such data, and has asserted there is no public interest in releasing such data and imposed a $19,000 fee. After we appealed that fee to the Maryland Public Information Act Compliance Board, the ATEU Manager tried to convince the MPIA Compliance Board to uphold the excessive fee, by falsely claiming that data which was electronically stored could only be extracted by individually printing thousands of citations. While the board agreed the $19,000 fee was excessive by 90% after the vendor confirmed they did have the ability to query the data electronically, the Montgomery County Attorney asserted they were not obligated to extract the data from a database even if we paid the fee. As the MPIA compliance board's authority was limited to fees, the matter of our MPIA request remains only partially resolved and has been appealed to the Circuit Court.

Unfortunately if you receive a red light camera citation in Montgomery County due to a short yellow light, you probably have no legal recourse.  Even though the state's red light camera law explicitly states that the agency which times lights is required to ensure that yellow times meet standards “adopted” by the SHA before red light cameras cameras are deployed, the ONLY defense which the Montgomery County District Court generally accepts is if your car was stolen and you can prove it, as this is the only defense explicitly stated in the law.  District Court Judges, who are generally assigned 100 or more cases heard in “assembly line” manner in a single “red light camera day” session, often refuse to hear ANY legal arguments regarding whether it is a defense if a light was improperly timed. The agency has no burden of proof under Maryland law to prove that the traffic signals comply with state law and SHA's adopted standards, and in most cases the ONLY defense which the district court will consider is if you can prove your car was stolen.  Further biasing the court against defendants, a "court fee" is paid only by defendants into the budget of the District Court ONLY if the defendant is found guilty. The Montgomery County Government in particular has worked tirelessly to ensure that the law and the procedures governing citations ensure recipients of photo enforcement citations have no chance defending themselves, even when the government has failed to follow the law.

As for the fines collected at this camera location which have been out of compliance with SHA policies for years, the county government plans to keep the loot and is refusing to issue refunds. Apparently the Montgomery County Government believes that ignorance of the law is an excuse... if you are the government.