COLLEGE PARK – The city is ramping up its speed camera enforcement following the deaths of three pedestrians this spring.
On Aug. 15 the city will begin ticketing 24/7 with three cameras on Baltimore Avenue all within a half mile of the University of Maryland campus. The speed limit on Baltimore Avenue near the campus has also been changed, dropping from 30 miles per hour to 25 mph.
Previously, speed cameras in College Park were enforced from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., but the College Park City Council recently voted to use cameras to enforce speeding at all hours after changes to the Maryland speed camera law during the General Assembly’s session earlier this year.
According to College Park Public Services Director Bob Ryan, the city determined it is allowed to operate cameras 24/7 because of §21–809(B.1.VI-VIII) in the Maryland code, which specifies that cameras in “school zones,” are only allowed to operate Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. However the law also defines “Institute of Higher Education” zones, which do not have time restrictions. Because there are no timing restrictions, the city may operate its cameras at all times.
“The law does not specify or limit the time of enforcement in the IHE zone,” Ryan said. “24/7/365 enforcement is allowed. The City Council has authorized that in the IHE zone.”
College Park has eight speed cameras, seven of which are in IHE zones and will operate through the night.
“We recognize that pedestrians aren’t just around between six and eight Monday through Friday,” College Park Councilman Patrick Wojahn said. “Safety issues need to be a concern for us all the time, whether they happen during said hours or whether they happen during a Friday or Saturday night.”
The speed cameras take a picture of any vehicle traveling 12 miles per hour or faster than the speed limit and issue a $40 citation, which is then mailed to offenders.
College Park pays its vendor, Optotraffic, $16 for every citation issued, according to the city’s budget.
Ron Ely, chairman of the Maryland Drivers Alliance group which opposes speed cameras, said he finds the so-called “bounty system” concerning.
“(The vendor) might be taking actions that would increase their revenues,” said Ron Ely of the Maryland Drivers Alliance. “They might optimize the system to issue as many citations as possible. The other is that if there were a problem they wouldn’t want people to know about it because they have a vested interest in people thinking that they seem reliable.”
The Speed Monitoring Reform Act, passed in this year’s General Assembly session, prohibits the practice of paying vendors on a per-citation basis, but Ely said cities with existing contracts are “grandfathered in” and will not have to change their revenue models until 2017.
“We argued this law was not strong enough,” Ely said. “We identified it does potentially have a loophole that would allow doing something that is still basically paying based on number but they don’t call it ‘per ticket.’ Because they’re grandfathering in existing conflicts until 2017, we won’t really know how the law will ultimately be implemented until years down the line.”
The College Park City Council wrote a letter to Sen. Rosapepe (D-21) voicing its opposition to the changes preventing it from paying vendors on a per-citation basis.
“The Council's position is that the City prefers to pay based on the number of citations processed, so that we are not paying for processing services we don't receive as the number of citations decreases over time due to the success of the program,” the council wrote in its letter.
Ryan said College Park will keep paying Optotraffic through the existing model until 2017. He said the pay-per-citation method is more effective.
“Frankly, I think the existing model is more cost effective for the municipalities that use photo enforcement,” Ryan said. “It’s quite possible the city will end up paying more for the service. I think that’s one of the unintended consequences.”
In fiscal year 2014, the College Park speed cameras brought in $1.2 million in revenue, of which $485,000 went to Optotraffic. The remaining $758,738 in revenue accounted for 5 percent of the city’s total revenue in 2014, according to the budget.
The city is required to use speed camera revenue toward other public safety initiatives, Wojahn said.
The 2014 total is down from $2 million in 2012.
Senator Jim Rosapepe (D-21) said the reduction in revenue is a sign of the speed camera program’s success.
“That’s because speeding has gone down,” Rosapepe said. “The speed cameras deterred people from speeding, which is what they were supposed to do. The revenue should go down because fewer people are violating the law. I’d love it if nobody was speeding and the city collected no revenue, but unfortunately some people feel they are above the law.”
However, the fiscal year 2015 budget estimates speed camera revenue to rise back up to $1.6 million, a reflection of the city’s stricter regulations.
“It’s an effort to ramp up enforcement,” Wojahn said. “With these serious incidents that we’ve seen, there’s also a sense that we’re trying to make the Route 1 corridor a more friendly place overall, and we really need to take some steps to get people to slow down.”
Ely said College Park might be addressing its problem in the wrong manner because alcohol contributed to the accidents.
“My concern would be for the colleges, they might be doing this instead of addressing the real problem they have, which is alcohol use,” Ely said. “The problem is a speed camera can’t take a drunk driver off the road.”
Ryan said the city has taken steps to combat drunk driving, including occasional DUI checkpoints on Route 1.
Ryan said he is working closely with bar owners to control crowds outside of the bars and reduce the number of intoxicated pedestrians in the street. The city is also planning to install a barrier on the median to force pedestrians to use cross walks.
Some residents feel the cameras impose an unnecessary financial burden on drivers.
“Those cameras are weighing us out,” said Linwood Walls, a teacher at Duval High School, at a recent county public safety meeting. “They’re making a lot of money on people riding up and down and I have a problem with it. It’s terrible. You don’t have a concern about people that are trying to make it in this world. Everybody doesn’t have a lot of money when they drive a car.”
Pursuant to the changes in the speed camera law, College Park is designating officials to investigate concerns about the speed program and handle appeals regarding erroneous tickets.
“There’s been a variety of complaints about the administration of speed camera rules, so this legislation tries to tighten up the law,” Rosapepe said. “To make sure people are only getting speeding tickets that are actually speeding. Some contractors were a little sloppy and the technology wasn’t perfect.”
Rosapepe said the changes in the law are a response to a 2012 audit of the Baltimore City speed camera program, which found a 10 percent error rate, leading to 70,000 erroneous tickets and amassing $2.8 million in revenue, according to the Baltimore Sun.
Ryan did not have statistics on the number of erroneous speed citations in College Park, but he emphasized the lengthy review process.
“There’s multiple layers of review, and now we’re adding another layer,” Ryan said. “If the cameras record something first they’re reviewed by the vendor for accuracy, then they come to police officers in the city… Now, there will be an appeal level above that before someone goes to trial if they wish for another review.”