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Speed Camera Audit Confidential, Expensive

January 20, 2014
Illustration by Alex Fine

Illustration by Alex Fine

Citizens and city officials hoping to see the results of an audit done on Xerox State and Local Solutions, Baltimore City’s former speed camera operator, were disappointed Wednesday when the Law Department asserted that the $278,000 document was confidential. As the Baltimore Sun reported:

City Solicitor George Nilson, the administration’s chief lawyer, said releasing the audit would violate the city’s settlement agreement with Xerox and “create obvious risks and potential exposure for the city.”

It was just the latest insult to speed camera foes, who have insisted that a massive error rate and systemically corrupt incentives make the devices irredeemable.

The critics, of course, are winning: Baltimore shut down both its speed and red light camera programs  a year ago, after the Sun discovered that the vender that took over for Xerox– Brekford Corp–was making similar mistakes.

But winning is a relative term. The city paid Brekford $600,000to terminate its contract. Xerox got $2.3 million taxpayer dollars. Nice work if you can get it—and it’s pretty standard in the industry. When Houston voters elected to end its red-light camera program in 2010, the vendor claimed the city owed $25 million for ending the contract early. In San Bernardino, Calif., when the city decided to pull out of its red-light camera contract in 2011, the company tried to impose a $1.8 million penalty for early termination.

In the traffic camera game, the only thing worse than a termination agreement that makes the city pay for failure is no termination clause at all. That sets up the city for a lawsuit if politicians or voters step in to stop the madness.

Then again. . . .

In New Jersey, class action suits flew as contract provisions in municipal red light cameras conflicted with state traffic laws.

The issue in Jersey was that yellow light timing is set according to traffic flow, but the red light camera contracts allowed shorter yellows, which catch more drivers running red lights. That too-short yellows also cause more accidents than they prevent would seem to mitigate against their use, but the money was, apparently, too good.

“People realize the government is institutionalizing a system to rip them off,” Republican New Jersey State Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon told Governing Magazine in early 2013.

The case was settled shortly thereafter when the vender—American Traffic Solutions—agreed to pay “up to $4.2 million in partial refunds on a half-million New Jersey tickets that might have been issued in violation of state law.”

That the money flowed the opposite way in Baltimore suggests that perhaps the secret audit findings were not quite what those screaming for its release assume.

Then again, we didn’t sue, so we’ll probably never know.

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