More questions raised on Chicago speed cameras

Workers install a device near 2323 W. Pershing Road in Chicago, where the city says a speed camera will be tested. (José M. Osorio/Tribune)

Even as Chicago prepares to test speed cameras next week, problems in Baltimore's 3-year-old camera program are raising questions about one of the bidders for Mayor Rahm Emanuel's controversial proposal that could target speeders in school and park zones over half the city.

Xerox State & Local Solutions Inc., one of two firms selected by the Emanuel administration to test cameras in Chicago, has come under scrutiny in recent months for faulty equipment and thousands of erroneous tickets issued in Baltimore over the past three years.

Judges sided with motorists in more than half of the contested tickets examined in a Nov. 18 investigative report by The Baltimore Sun, which like the Chicago Tribune is owned by Tribune Co. The report followed months of complaints and controversy about Baltimore's program, which is under review by a mayoral task force. The Xerox firm, which is owned by the photocopier giant, is being replaced by another contractor in January.

Xerox officials said its problems in Baltimore account for less than 1 percent of all the tickets issued under the program, and that the cameras have slowed down motorists and reduced accidents.

"We strive for perfection, but on occasion, errors do occur," Xerox spokesman Chris Gilligan said. "When any type of issue arises in the program, we work closely with the municipality to quickly resolve it in a manner that least inconveniences the public, reflecting our strong focus and commitment to customer service."

Emanuel administration officials refused to answer questions about their bidding process this week, including whether they considered the firm's performance in Baltimore. City officials will not even confirm the names of the two companies selected for the testing phase of the camera rollout, citing a need for confidentiality because of the "ongoing procurement process."

The city announced last week that it would test speed cameras at four Chicago locations, to begin Monday and go through Jan. 3. No citations will be issued during the test period.

"A variety of factors determined the test locations, including location within a safety zone, frequency of speed related crashes, and ease of accessibility to power," the city said in a news release issued the day before Thanksgiving. "The systems will be removed after the evaluation period."

Sources involved in the process have confirmed that Xerox and American Traffic Solutions Inc. will each get to test their equipment at two of the locations. Workers were installing equipment at one of the locations assigned to Xerox on Tuesday.

American Traffic Solutions is not without its own controversy. In 2011, officials in Canada returned about $13 million in speeding fines issued by a single faulty camera. The cameras were installed by ATS, but the company blamed the problem on the local government that maintained the cameras.

Last month, a third top contender for the lucrative speed camera contract was disqualified by Emanuel after the Tribune disclosed allegations of corruption in the city's 10-year-old red-light program. Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., which has helped run the $300 million red-light program since its inception in 2003, was eliminated from the bidder list after it acknowledged its failure to report internal allegations of corruption in the Chicago program involving the city official who oversaw the contract.

Those revelations have prompted an ongoing investigation by city Inspector General Joseph Ferguson into the close relationship between Redflex and the city official who oversaw its contract.

Redflex's Australian parent company, trying to salvage the red-light contract with the city, has hired the powerhouse Chicago law firm Sidley Austin to conduct its own investigation. Heading that probe is former Inspector General David Hoffman, who is now a partner at the firm and a mayoral appointee on Emanuel's infrastructure trust board.

City officials, likewise, do not want the Redflex controversy to slow down the mayor's timetable for getting speed cameras up and running. Emanuel is counting on raising at least $20 million from tickets issued to motorists by speed cameras in 2013 to help balance his budget. The mayor has insisted the cameras are for the safety of children and denied critics' claims that it is simply a city money grab.

The cameras, including mobile units, can be placed within one-eighth of a mile of public schools and parks around the city.

Nine potential bidders answered the city's request for proposals, and early questions about how the program would work were centered on a quirk in Illinois law that says children must be visibly present before school zone limits can be enforced. Vendors were stymied by the need to collect photographs not only of a speeding car and its license tag but of children within 300 feet of the violation.

A spokesman for ATS said Tuesday that the resolution so far is simple: School zone citations will be issued only when children are in the photographs. If children cannot be seen in the photos, normal speed limits will be in force.

There will be two test sites on the North Side: Warren Park in the 6500 block of North Western Avenue and Near North Montessori School in the 1400 block of West Division Street. There also will be two test spots on the South Side: McKinley Park in the 2200 block of West Pershing Road and Dulles Elementary School in the 6300 block of South King Drive.

In Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake formed a task force to examine the program, the city moved to oust Xerox as its vendor in favor of another company the city says offered a higher return, and officials began an internal review surrounding one camera that persistently produced erroneous tickets. Many of the complaints came from commercial trucking companies that claimed their drivers were repeatedly cited in error, and also that little was done to resolve the issue despite months of repeated complaints.