Saturday, January 30, 2010

Legislation Proposed to Limit Work Zone Cameras

Bills have been introduced into the General Assembly which would change the law regarding 'work zone' speed cameras. The legislation passed last year authorizes speed cameras to be used in work zones on freeways 'regardless of whether workers are present'. The proposed legislation would change this to require workers to be present, meaning 'active' work zones only.

Versions of the legislation have been introduced into the Senate (Senate Bill 124) and the House of Delegates (House Bill 143). The Sponsors of SB124 are Senator Brochin (D, District 42), Senator Kittleman(R, District 9), Senator Zirkin (D, District 11), and the sponsor of HB 143 is Delegate Morhaim (D, District 11).

This legislation does not get us to where many of us would like to be: NO speed cameras. But we think those who oppose speed cameras should support this particular legislation. The reason is that the current law is open to abuse by keeping work zones open long after all work has ceased, or even creating 'artificial' work zones just to collect speed camera revenue. Does that sound crazy? Well, that would require no more dishonesty than the widepsread creation of new school zones solely for the purpose to installing speed cameras which is taking place right now.

The current work zone speed cameras are merely a pilot program, we fully anticipate that program to vastly expand after the 2010 elections, and that is when we will see the rules being bent on those cameras in a serious way. Should what we describe take place, it would no doubt adversely affect traffic congestion on our already strained road system. One might also consider the effect on Maryland's economy. Many of those tickets will go to out of state drivers who will get the tickets 30 days after leaving the state, when their recollection is that they were driving in a perfectly safe manner for conditions. Some of those citations could be for reduced work zones speed limits which an out of town driver might reasonably have thought was not in effect on a freeway work zone which was in fact empty. Hopefully the state will make good use of the approximately $24 it collects after the contractor's fees, because it will be the last money it gets from these irate visitors who will not be returning to spend money here again.

We could debate statistics regarding the safety benefits or lack thereof of work zone cameras, but the simple fact is that worker safety is not an issue if there are no workers. Nonetheless the state administration has made it clear that they DO currently intend to use workzone speed cameras when there are no workers.

There will be a comittee hearing on this February 2nd. If you do not want to see what I have described happen, go to www.mdelect.net, find your state lawmakers, and tell them to support SB124 and HB143, but that what you really think is needed is for them to repeal the speed camera law outright.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Close-Up View of New Carrollton's Speed Cameras

A reader has submitted some interesting photos of the New Carrollton speed cameras taken in January, 2010 on Riverdale Road near Lamont Drive. Here you can see a typical setup of a mobile OptoTraffic Speed Camera trailer. Note the multiple cameras and sensors on the telescoping pole which places the sensitive instruments right next to high voltage power lines. Click on the images for a full sized view.

The next image provides a nice view of the camera device itself and the location on Riverdale Road where it is being set up. In this image you can see the ruts formed where the vehicles that deploy and maintain the device park ( in a spot which would most likely been a parking violation for ordinary drivers ).

The trailer (which has serial numbers and technical specifications displayed but no license plate), was positioned just before the end of the school zone... so close that vehicles would be within 2 seconds of passing the "end school zone" sign marking the end point of the "school zone" camera's authority to issue tickets.

The location of this "school zone" speed camera was in fact not marked as a school zone until very recently. On the top image you can see the recent image of the camera. Note the "End School Zone" sign. On the top bottom you can see the old image of the same image pulled from Google Street View, that sign is not present. A wooden sign at that location reads "Veterans Memorial Park", rather than the name of a school.

This website previously documented the widespread creation of school zones solely for the purpose of establishing speed cameras despite state highway administration guidelines specifically stating that this should not be done. Below are more photos showing the beginning of that school zone at "Mahoney Rd" taken in January 2010 (top), about 0.4 miles before the camera location, along with an image pulled from street view showing the sign was not previously there (bottom). We have obscured the image of bystanders in these photos.

We have learned that New Carrollton's contract pays OptoTraffic a 40.5% cut of each paid ticket ($16.20 per ticket) with the city receiving the remaining 59.5%. The terms are similar to contracts which Optotraffic has been signing with other towns in the region. There is a provision of Maryland law which states "If a contractor operates a speed monitoring system on behalf of a local jurisdiction, the contractor’s fee may not be contingent on the number of citations issued or paid" which was intended to ban per-ticket bounties. Because per-ticket contracts are more lucrative, New Carrollton's contract attempts to circumvent this restriction by claiming that the city "operates" the devices, whereas OptoTraffic merely own them, transport them, do the initial processing of violations, mail citations, and collects payments. This contract is in many respects the same as the one Montgomery County is currently being sued over.

It so happens that our reader/photographer actually caught two Optotraffic employees "operating" the device on film. The individuals confirmed that they were employed by OptoTraffic. Some of what they did included refueling the portable generator that powers the camera and power cycling it -- an act which could have affected any internal settings for the camera. We have chosen not to post the Optotraffic employees faces or identities here out of concern for their safety, but you can see their company owned vehicle in the background which does not display any county, state, or city markings or special registration plates.

We have also been informed by another reader that New Carrollton has recently held its first District Court "Speed Camera Day". According to that courtroom report several defendants reported on procedural errors by the city. The judge at first did not believe the claims were authentic, finding the first defendant guilty despite them. However after other defendants provided consistent stories and additional documentation the judge was convinced dismissed the several defendants' citations.

We'd like to thank our anonymous contributors. Much of the information on website is due to tips and information from readers. Such contributions are critical to our efforts to keep the public informed and to root out government corruption. We encourage those with information to contact us.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Big School Zone Scam Continues

Since statewide speed cameras were authorized by Senate Bill 277 which took effect in October 2009, Cities and Towns all across Maryland are scrambling to install new ‘school zone’ speed cameras. What they do not like to mention, is that most of the school zones where they are going up did not exist before the approval of speed cameras.
Let’s start out by examining what a school zone actually is. The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) has published guidelines for automated school zone enforcement which includes the following description.

"What’s a School Zone?
Maryland law allows ASE systems in designated school zones. A clear definition of “school zone” must be established in order to implement an effective ASE program.
The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) defines a “School Area” as the area surrounding, and within one‐half mile of, a school building or property and within which motor vehicle, pedestrian or bicycle traffic is substantially generated or influenced by the school.
Within this “School Area”, “School Zones” may be designated.
SHA defines a “School Zone” as a segment of highway located within a School Area that is:
(1) Routinely used by pupils for access to or egress from school buildings or grounds,
(2) Established by official action, and
(3) Designated by appropriate signs.
The Maryland Annotated Code (TR § 21‐803.1) allows School Zones to be established within a one‐half mile radius of any school. However, this does not mean that all roads within a one‐half mile radius of a school are considered School Zones. The SHA, or the local authority having jurisdiction over the road, must officially establish a School Zone and designate it with the appropriate signs before it becomes a School Zone. School zones should not be established solely for the purpose of installing speed cameras. Similarly, all school zones do not automatically qualify for speed cameras. Speed camera deployments should be based on a traffic safety study.
** Not all roadways within a ½ mile radius of schools are considered School Zones **"

As you can see, the SHA guidelines unambiguously state that school zones are not ‘all roads within ½ mile of a school’. They must be designated and marked as such. And note those words "School zones should not be established solely for the purpose of installing speed cameras." Another point, the ability to establish school zones was NOT created by senate bill 277. If you read that piece of legislation (which unfortunately many ‘professional journalists’ and apparently many local lawmakers have not), you will see that it did not alter TR § 21‐803.1, and you will also see that the authorization for speed cameras is ‘inside school zones’ not ‘within a ½ mile radius of schools’.

However what is actually happening is that school zones are in fact being created or greatly expanded ‘solely for the purpose of installing speed cameras’ exactly as SHA guidelines state that they should not be, and that this is happening on a huge scale. In some case they are being broadly defined to cover all roads within a ½ mile radius of anything that could even remotely be considered a school.

See how these local governments are attempting to promote their revenue enhancing camera programs using children and schools for cover:
Baltimore City: StopBigBrotherMD documented using Google View several speed camera locations that were not previously marked as school zones and which are on roads not adjacent to the grounds of any school. Baltimore also confirmed in a letter as well as in an interview with ABC news 2 that the cameras were not going up in pre-existing school zones. The city has also asserted that it has a right to create school zones on state highways without SHA approval, or to not post all standardized signage such as ‘end school zone’ signs as specified by SHA guidelines. 86% of the city falls within ½ mile of ‘something that could be considered a school’. Baltimore apparently selected the locations because their contractor agreed to convert existing red light cameras to speed cameras. Baltimore City wrote $7.1million worth of speed camera revenue into their budget before the camera ordinance was approved or any locations selected.

New Carrollton: We documented with Google View that the locations selected by the city for speed cameras were not previously marked as school zones. The city police told the Gazette that they had ‘not fully mapped out its school zones’ as of August 2009, which means they were not in place until right before the cameras went up. The city's web site stated that the zones were 'designated by the City for speed enforcement cameras' and as such they were clearly ‘established solely for the purpose of installing speed cameras’.

Riverdale Park : Tried to create several new school zones on state highways in the same ordinance authorizing speed cameras. The zone for William Wirt Middle School on state highway 201 is a full 1/2 mile from the school grounds. That road only barely intersects the 1/2 mile radius and never touches the grounds of the school. According to a traffic engineer at the SHA, no school zones on US 1 and State Highway 201 previously existed. One zone on state highway 410 did exist but was a much smaller area than in the Riverdale Park ordinance. All of these state highways are major arterial roads. As of mid January the SHA was still considering their request to use speed cameras at these locations.

Mount Rainier: School zones were created as 1/2 mile radius areas which cover the entire town. This was done right after speed cameras were approved.

Glenarden: School zones were authorized in several 1/2 mile radius circles which cover the entire town. At the time of this writing the Glenarden city website did not contain a copy of the ordinance or any notice of this new ordinance, even tough state law requires 'public hearings' and public notice of locations before speed cameras are used in any local jurisdiction.

Cheverly: Not only is the town establishing new school zones, but it is going so far that they are introducing an ordinance Jan 14 to lower most speed limits. Most roads in the town will have the speed limit lowered from 25mph to 20mph, and the newly created school zones will drop to 15mph (ref 1, ref2). Some council members went on the record for their reasons for lowering speed limits in town meeting minutes: "CM Schachter will have questions about how creatively and expansive the Town could be in interpreting the law regarding the expenditure of these funds. Noted that it doesn’t bother him one bit to make money to be used for additional public good. Can we lower speed limits around the schools? "
The next Cheverly town council work session is scheduled for January 28th and the next town meeting scheduled for February 11, where they are planning to approve their speed camera contract, as well as discussing "Approving Speed Designation and School Zone Designation" according to the meeting agenda.

Berwyn Heights: expanded its school zones to cover all of Pontiac Street, and added a new one on Edmonston Road.

District Heights: On November 24th the town passed ordinances to authorize speed cameras in3 new school zones which cover the entire town. At the time of this writing the city website (www.districtheights.org) did not contain ANY information about speed cameras or the new ordinance.

Sykesville (Carroll County): is currently considering an ordinance to enact speed cameras and cover much of the town with new school zones. These zones cover several roads which are not adjacent to any school. One example is a new zone for a daycare center located inside of a church located at 7300 Spout Hill Rd with the zone covers ‘Harlen Lane’ which at its closest barely comes within 12 mile of that location, if at all (you can see the proposed school zones on this map shown on the town website, Harlan lane is the road right above 'Kalorama Rd' on the extreme limit of the leftmost 1/2 mile radius circle shown). The speed limit for all roads in the zone are being set to 25mph. Town meetings are set for January 25th and February 8th.

Brentwood: The town's December newsletter stated that the council had passed ordinances "Authorizing Speed Camera Enforcement Program" and "Adopt Brentwood School Zones" in the same meeting in November. The town website states that the area includes "Allison, Windom, and/or Webster streets between 34th and 38th street", these streets were not previously marked as school zones. The ordinances themselves and the town meeting minutes from November were not available on the website.

Bowie: Has also tried expanding or creating new school zones. However a letter between Bowie and Prince George's County shows WHY there has been such a rush to create all of these school zones. The county denied the city’s request for some locations because they had just voted to establish the school zones and put up the cameras first. As a result the county, not the city, would keep the money. Local governments are in a race to add cameras before someone else. We do not know at this time whether the County Executive’s decision to curtail the county's program means that these locations will simply revert back to the city or if they will become mobile camera locations controlled by the county.

And noted earlier, all of these local governments do have authority to create school zones (albeit requiring SHA approval for state highways). But they also had the authority to do this for no less than the last 13 years (21-803 was amended in 1997 so it was obviously in place at that time). The locations above where not selected to be school zones until last year when there was a revenue motive to do so. If these cities and towns felt there was a safety issue for students, they had many years to decide to notify drivers of the presence of a school, install other types of safety devices, even lower speed limits if the situation called for it. BUT THEY DID NOT DO SO.

And in most of the above cased the stated purpose was to install speed cameras, so how does that fit with the SHA’s statement that ‘School zones should not be established solely for the purpose of installing speed cameras’ ?

One might ask what would happen to traffic patterns and the region's already bad traffic congestion if everyone did what some of these towns are trying to do, putting up school zones far from schools without oversight or traffic studies. Even worse what would happen if they all did what Cheverly is doing as explicitly lowering speed limits just to hand out more tickets? One might ask that, but oh they used the word ‘school’ so we’re not supposed to ask questions are we? But we’re going to ask anyways: Given that they never previously took the bare minimum step of notifying drivers that there were schools in the area, is this really about safety or is this all a big fraudulent revenue scheme which is shamelessly using children for cover?

========================

We should note one more twist to this story, which is that there is one speed camera community in the state where the vast expansion of school zones is NOT taking place: Montgomery County. Montgomery County alone was authorized to add cameras in ‘residential’ roads rather than just school zones. The distinction is that 'residential' cameras do not have the restriction of running only on weekdays, which is a requirement only on cameras ‘inside a school zone’. Strangely enough a few ‘residential’ cameras are located IMMEDIATELY outside marked school zones. In one case a camera located on Quince Orchard Road is located 1/5th of a mile before a sign marking the beginning of a school zone for Quince Orchard High school (1/4 mile farther down the road on the opposite side of route 28). A short distance before that speed camera, the now fading remnants of the word ‘school’ can be seen painted across the road -- apparently the old boundary of the school zone. Yet this camera is designated as ‘residential’ according to a document put out by the Office of Legislative Oversight, and thus it is permitted to issue tickets 7 days per week. (Sneaky devils!)

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Prince George's County Executive Calls Speed Cameras "A Tax"

In a surprising reversal, Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson has announced that the county will scale back its original plan to install fixed pole speed cameras at 50 sites and instead use a fleet of mobile cameras.

"It seems to me like it's more a revenue-raising issue than public safety, and it's going to take too many dollars out of the hands of our citizens" Johnson said describing the fixed-pole speed camera plan.

"It's disguised as a fee and a fine, but it's a tax," WTOP news quoted Jack Johnson.

The county will still proceed to issue citations using a more modest number of mobile camera vans which can be easily moved between many sites. These would have locations which are less well known to local drivers and the cameras would be less conspicuous. Prince George's could also still decide to add fixed pole cameras at a later time: when Montgomery County began their program they started with a modest number of fixed pole cameras the first year along with a number of mobile sites, which has since ballooned to over 60 fixed pole locations and dozens of mobile camera locations.

The decision will not affect the many towns in the county that have started their own independent speed camera programs, using mostly mobile cameras. These towns include Bowie, New Carrollton, Berwynn Heights, District Heights, Capitol Heights, Cheverly, Mount Rainier, Brentwood, Riverdale Park, and Glenarden. Most if not all of them are creating new school zones or extending existing zones specifically for the purpose of adding speed cameras: those locations were never previously considered school zones even though the towns have had the authority to designate and mark school zones for many years. So if you own stock in ACS or Sigma Space do not worry, there will still be no shortage of cameras and tickets going out in 2010.

Refs:
WTOP
Washington Post
Gazette
=======================================================
Updated 4/30/2010
Well it looks like we missed this one: County Executive Johnson later corrected himself. What he meant to say was 'it's a tax, JUST NOT A BIG ENOUGH TAX!" The Washington Post reported that after being questioned by the County Council about his decision, he responded that his office had calculated that the planned camera deployment locations would only return 124,000 tickets in the first year, and that after expenses on the 50 cameras they would bring in only $100,000 in net revenue if 65% of ticket recipients paid without question. "Although he insisted that revenue was not the reason to go with only mobile units, Johnson said last week that he could "not justify" the 50-site plan for that small a financial return."

In other words 'We want the cameras for safety, not revenue, but ONLY IF THEY MAKE LOTS OF MONEY!!!' Read Washington Post Article.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Chestertown Council Wants To Put Citizens Under Surveillance

The small town of Chestertown Maryland (Kent County, pop 4740) is currently considering adding speed cameras. The minutes of the December 7th 2009 meeting show that Town Manager Ingersoll introduced a proposed change to the town code for an ordinance to authorize speed cameras. Almost the entire town could legally have speed cameras deployed.

The minutes made it clear what the limited extent of human review and local police involvement would be in issuing citations: "Mr. Ingersoll stated that a computer print-out would go to the Police Department who checked off the list and then it was sent back to the vendor for the issuance of citations. He said that the police would make sure that only the proper vehicles were issued citations, citing an example that if an ambulance or fire truck was going over the speed limit, they would not be issued a citation."

The minutes state that "the Ordinance would be adopted at the meeting of December 21st and it will become effective January 10th. He said that he would try to bring the contract to the next meeting." The town website does not display the ordinance or show any notice of public hearings at the time of this posting.

Links:
Meeting Minutes
ChesterTown Council

Saturday, January 2, 2010

2010 May Bring New Speed Camera Legislation

With their victory passing statewide speed cameras one might think Big Brother would take a breather before pushing the line any farther. Apparently not so for a few lawmakers.

Sen. David Harrington from Prince George's County has sponsored a new bill, PG307-10, which would authorize the cameras on two specific roads -- Chillum Road and Sargent Road. Apparently Prince George's County found a few small segments of road where they could not legally create new school zones solely for the purpose of deploying speed cameras, as was done by Baltimore City and almost every town in Prince George's County which has authorized the cameras so far. (Towns and counties had the ability to create school zones long before Senate Bill 277 was passed in 2009 -- in fact SB 277 did not change the criteria for or definition of school zones at all -- but those local governments never thought it was worthwhile to create these school zones until the revenue motive for adding cameras was introduced). PG307-10 would allow cameras to be added on these two additional roads without the need to create school zones. This would set a precedent for creating case-by-case exemptions for any location which does not meet the existing legal criteria for using speed cameras.

Elsewhere, Montgomery County Delegation chairman Brian Feldman is sponsoring bill MC10-10 which would create a new revenue sharing system between Montgomery County and small towns like Poolsville and Barnesville. Currently towns which do not have their own police forces or speed camera programs have had cameras placed on roads in their jurisdiction by the county. However unlike towns which run their own programs (such as Takoma Park or Chevy Chase Village) do not receive a cut of that revenue. Strangely enough, some of those towns have complained about the cameras when they do not get their piece of the pie. A "side benefit" to this legislation would be that towns with particularly lucrative cameras in their jurisdictions (such as those managed by Chevy Chase) would have the option of turning them over to the county and issue twice as many citations before hitting the revenue cap built into SB 277, with the revenue divided between the local jurisdiction and the county rather than going to the state -- even if (as is the case of affluent Chevy Chase Village) the town's cameras are on state owned roads paid for with state tax dollars.

The above bills would need to be approved by both the state House of Delegates and Senate and if so would take effect October 1, 2010. However we predict that there will not be major changes to speed camera laws this year because all state lawmakers are all up for re-election in November 2010, and many would prefer that the hundreds of thousands of voters who will receive those citations will not recall their 2009 voting record on statewide speed cameras, which you can see HERE.