Local governments and police on Wednesday attacked a sweeping proposal to change Maryland's speed camera law.
During the first hearing on whether to revamp a law that has been lucrative for local governments but also has sparked concerns about fairness, speed camera proponents defended what has been called a "bounty system" of paying contractors based on the number of tickets issued to drivers.
Program supporters also rejected as unfeasible a proposal to require precise time-stamped photos and painted lines on roadways that would more easily allow motorists to challenge the $40 tickets in court.
Several lawmakers are pushing legislation to either rework or repeal the state's 2009 speed camera law after The Baltimore Sun reported that several Baltimore cameras issued tickets to motorists in error. The Sun also showed that several Maryland jurisdictions do not provide the necessary information to challenge tickets.
Since this summer, Baltimore has audited its program, issued refunds to motorists and hired a new vendor to operate new, more sophisticated cameras. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake set a goal to have "a zero-error program." City cameras have generated $48 million in fines since 2009.
Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who has proposed a multi-part plan to overhaul the state law, called the city's program an "absolute sham" that was tantamount to a "commuter tax" on people driving into the city.
Brochin's proposal calls for more clearly outlawing per-ticket payments to speed camera contractors, giving motorists more evidence of their speeding infractions and imposing greater limits on when and where cameras can be placed.
In his pitch to fellow lawmakers, Brochin offered photos of camera placed outside the Broadcasting Institute of Maryland on Harford Road as evidence that local governments can misuse the current law by broadly interpreting what counts as a school zone. His bill would restrict the cameras to within 500 feet of an elementary or secondary school.
Lawmakers also heard testimony on a bill to repeal the speed camera law altogether. "We launched the program too quickly," said Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican. "It turned out to be an embarrassment in Baltimore City."
Brochin said he also would prefer repeal, but was a "political pragmatist." He said his proposal was "the best fix that I could come up with."
While several people with objections to speed camera programs urged lawmakers to adopt stricter rules and greater transparency, Brochin's proposal drew criticism from several other jurisdictions with speed camera programs. The Maryland Association of Counties called Brochin's proposal "needless and potentially detrimental."
Montgomery County Police Capt. Tom Didone oversees that jurisdiction's speed camera program, the state's oldest. He said proposals to overhaul the law would be "ineffective, impractical, unnecessarily expensive and do not address the primary concern for these programs."
Didone said problems with some camera programs could be attributed to human error.
In a letter to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, the Maryland Department of Transportation said that Brochin's proposal would force the state to "implement an inferior" program to the laser-based system that catches speeders in highway work zones.
Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker wrote that the time-stamp requirement could possibly put that jurisdiction's 72 mobile cameras off-line.
Other proposals to change the state's speed camera law will receive public hearings over the next several weeks.