Saturday, September 18, 2010

Plot Thickens With Rhode Island Avenue Speed Limits

Earlier we reported that the speed limit where two cameras on US Route 1 (Rhode Island Avenue) in Brentwood and Mount Rainer have been added appears to have recently been lowered from 35mph to 25mph.  We filed a Maryland Public Information Act Request with the Maryland State Highway Administration to try to get some answers.  After just over a month we finally received some of the information we were looking for, answering some questions and raising several new ones.

In their first response the SHA provided a list of written answers along with Mount Rainier's permit for speed camera use.  When we informed them that some of the data we requested was not complete they then produced a copy of Brentwood's speed camera permit application.

In their first response the SHA stated that the speed limit sign "During the SHA's review of this area for school zone signing it was found that a 35mph speed limit sign was located on northbound US 1 near 37th street.  This sign was incorrectly placed and was replaced with a 25mph sign in April, 2010, when the school zone signing was installed."  We responded by asking about the sign change in the southbound direction, and also pointed out that our request had include the both directions as well as work orders to change the signs. 

Felicia Murphy from the SHA responded that "The speed limit in Mt. Rainier on US 1 has been 25 mph for many years." and repeated that "we noticed the 35 mph speed limit sign which was incorrect and had it corrected."  They were unable to produce the actual work orders for changing the signs.  However we noted that page two of the Brentwood permit request states: "The posted speed limit of this section of US 1 has recently been reduced to 25mph, extending an existing 25MPH zone that is present to the south.".  We pointed this out to the SHA in another email along with the photos below showing the location in the southbound lane where there is now a 25mph sign which was clearly not there "for many years" since Google Street View has only been in existence for a few years.
North of this sign the speed limit is currently, and was previously, posted at 35mph, and the speed camera is now located a mere 50 yards south of this point.  We also asked for the name of the engineer who "discovered" the speed limit was wrong, or whether someone pointed this "error" out to them, and for the document that was the basis for saying a 35mph speed limit was "incorrect".   After three business days we received no additional response from the SHA.
In the SHA's original response to our question "Was a school zone added or expanded by the SHA in this location within the past year? if so, on what date?"  They responded "No. The school zone signing for Christian Family Montessori School was installed in April 2010."  They responded to our question "Did the SHA receive any other applications for a school zone at this location prior to April 2009?" ( by that meaning was a school zone ever requested  before the General Assembly voted to permit statewide speed cameras ) they responded "No applications for a school zone were received from the Town of Mt. Rainier. The school tone was established based on the annual evaluation process. It should be noted that school zones are established based on a blanket Memorandum of Action (MOA) effective August 15, 2001."  However they proceed to cite that memorandum which includes "A School Zone becomes official when the required signs, as described herein, are installed."  which of course they had already stated was done in April 2010, nine years after the Memorandum of Understanding they referred to was passed. We also note that Page 2 of the second document the SHA sent us, the permit application from Brentwood, it states that "It is important to recognize the area as recently been designated as a school zone by the SHA."  The document several times refers to "proposed school zones."   So despite an effort to conceal this the fact a cagey response, this location was NOT previously an official, marked school zone, and it was never requested to be made into one before statewide speed cameras were approved by the General Assembly.

Some items absent from the SHA's response were just as telling as the items they did provide.  Had there been any document showing the speed limit signs had all said 25mph several years ago, would they not have immediately produced this in order to defuse the issue?  Had there been a document showing that the "correct" speed limit in this area had been 25mph "for many years" would they not have immediately produced that as well when asked?  And had there been school zone markings, or requests to add them prior to the approval of statewide speed cameras, would they not have quickly volunteered that documentation as well?

A letter dated March 8, 2010 was included as part of the permit application.  That letter, written by Felicia Murphy Assistant District Engineer from the SHA, refers to the intersection of US 1 and 37th street and states "The school zone limit in this study does not cover this intersection". The letter was sent to the mayor or Brentwood but CC'd State Senator David Harrington.  We felt that it confusing they would send such a letter to one state legislator and none of the delegates representing this district, unless Senator Harrington had somehow personally been involved in this permit process in some  way.

The permit request itself was prepared by The Traffic Group Inc.  The Traffic Group's business includes providing Automated License Plate Recognition services and systems (a component of speed camera systems) and was contracted to prepare a request for speed cameras which would be approved.  (update 9/19/2010 : We were contacted by a representative of the traffic group who characterized their business as "we conduct the studies necessary to meet the state guidelines for install of the cameras.".  They declined to answer a question about how they are compensated for this work. ) The document did not show ANY 35mph signs, even though the initial response we received from the SHA stated that they had replaced an "incorrect" 35mph sign with a 25mph sign in April 2010.  The document included a traffic survey, conducted at US1 and 37th place from March 1-7 2010 by The Traffic Group, which showed that the 85th percentile speed in the northbound lane was 45mph, and 39mph in the southbound direction.  The 85th percentile speed is the speed which the Institute of Transportation Engineers recommends as the primary basis for setting speed limits.  Of course, since this study was conducted in March the speed limits sign on  US 1 south had not yet been changed since the SHA stated this happened in APRIL, yet the study was based on a 25mph speed limit.  We also noted that in the southbound lane only 12% of drivers were traveling in the southbound direction was traveling at or below 25mph, meaning that a 25mph the speed limit makes 88% of drivers into "lawbreakers".  Just ask yourself, are 88% of drivers reckless and unsafe?!?

The document also attempted to prove the need for speed cameras by showing that there had been 15 accidents in this area within the past 4 years.  Yet it also showed that there had been no fatalities, no pedestrian collisions, and only one of the 15 accidents was reported to have been caused by "excessive speed".  The most common type of accident in the location was "rear end collisions", which is a type of accident which some studies have show to INCREASE after red light cameras were installed (the speed cameras deployed by Brentwood and Mount Rainier double as red light cameras).

The SHA's response said that it took them less than two hours to collect the information we requested, however it took 32 days for them to provide a response.  Nevertheless they did ultimately provide much of what we requested, which is more than we can say for the Prince George's County Government.  We sent a similar request to the Prince George's County government in March pertaining to camera requests on county roads, and despite our trying to follow up on that multiple times they refuse to either grant or officially deny our request and no longer respond to any of our letters or emails.  If they are willing to commit a clear violation of the terms of the MPIA law just imagine what the Prince George's County Government must be hiding!


UPDATE 09/25/2010:The SHA has now confirmed to the Washington Examiner that the speed limit signs on Rhode Island Avenue was changed in both directions in April, 2010.  The SHA still claims this was done as part of a 'routine review of school zones' even though the town of Brentwood had already contacted the SHA prior to this about their desire to put up speed cameras, and despite the fact that (according to the response they sent us) there had been no prior requests to mark this location as a school zone before statewide speed cameras were approved by the legislature.  Brentwood officials reportedly did not respond to any of the Examiner's calls.

The fact that both signs were changed in April means that the speed study included in Brentwood's speed camera permit contained false information.  The study was conducted March 1-7, before the signs were changed, yet it lists the speed limit as 25mph not 35mph.