Frank DeFilippo: Smile! More Speed Cameras Are on the Way

Let’s put our heads together and see if we can decode this: A drive through the City of Baltimore is a block-and-stop nightmare of a crawl because the city’s traffic signal system lacks synchronicity. But City Hall’s gang that can’t shoot straight is installing dozens of new speed and red light cameras to apprehend offending motorists who are mostly stopped or petty-paced anyway. The point seems to be to entrap motorists who are creeping or stalled within the lineated square of an intersection when a traffic signal suddenly blinks from cautionary orange to dead-stop red. So now the dirty little secret, like pregnancy, is out. Speed cameras aren’t about traffic safety at all, and never were. They’re about a hefty new revenue stream to supplement modest property tax cuts and dips in municipal revenue. Property taxes are reduced by a penny or two, and speed cameras pick motorists’ pockets at $40 and $75 a clip. It’s a new hidden tax, by another name.  Frank A. DeFilippo  Baltimore’s photo-shopped fines are a class action tax that falls disproportionately on the wealthy who are trying to zip along in their turbo-charged Benzes and torqued up Beamers. The homeless and the dead-broke ride Charm City Circulators to their encampments under bridges. The city is about to become a massive grid of a speed trap, rivaling some of the cracker towns of the south where entire budgets are supported by lead-footed tourists who’re hurrying to get where they’re going. Last fiscal year, Baltimore’s camera system fines yielded $25 million in revenue – 385,000 speed camera fines at $40 each for a total of $15.4 million, and 126,000 red light camera fines at $75 each for a total of $9.4 million, according to published reports. Parking meters also add to the revenue pool in ever-increasing increments. A quarter will now buy only nine minutes in many business areas. And in one of the poorest neighborhoods in town, around Hollins Market, meters have just been upped to a quarter a half hour from its previous bargain of a nickel. And let’s not forget the hucksters who peddle this peeping-tom equipment to governments. They receive a slice of the pot on the promise of greater riches for struggling cities and towns and a measure of dubious safety for those within their wide-angle range. And now the impecunious city, sensing a jackpot to augment the highest property taxes in the state – more than double that of any other subdivision – is about to add or relocate 42 speed cameras and 52 red light cameras, according to The Baltimore Sun. Mayor Catherine Pugh (D) has stated that the motorists the city is really after are those who intrude into the “box,” otherwise known as the space within the four corners of an intersection, as a traffic signal suddenly flashes red. Tough luck to drivers who get caught in the coloration switch by a second. Trying to beat a light just got expensive. “If you’re in that box when the light changes,” Pugh said during a television interview, “you’re going to get a ticket.” But the mayor’s plot-to-pay took an unintended detour a couple of weeks ago when, without notice or cause, traffic suddenly jammed up on city streets like the overflow lots on game days in the Orioles-Ravens stadium complex. Michelle Pourciau, the director of Baltimore’s Department of Transportation, apparently decided to tinker with the city’s traffic signal system without notifying the elected higher-ups at City Hall who are accountable to their constituents. The mayor and City Council members were swamped with complaints and angry questions about motorists’ inability to navigate city roadways more than a block at a time without interference from red lights. Pugh’s response: “It would cost $30 million to synchronize the lights.” Translation: Learn to live with the inconvenience. What makes the collision of events all the more toothsome is that the major domo at City Hall, Jim Smith, Pugh’s guidance counselor, is a former state transportation secretary and Baltimore County executive, who knows a thing or two about moving traffic. This is not the first time Baltimore has adopted speed cameras as a revenue source, all the while protesting that the devices were a traffic safety feature to protect pedestrians, especially children, against careless and distracted motorists in a hurry. After a couple of troubled starts and cancellations, the devices were reintroduced not long ago with a lengthy fine-free trial period of warnings and announced designated locations, mainly near schools and on steep downgrades, testing driver reflexes as well as brake pads. The penalty system has proved lucrative, if contradictory and farcical. Try driving in any direction across the city and moving more than a block or two at a time and you’ll discover that a trip to the moon in a rocket ship is quicker than a crosstown errand. And the sickly aspect of the traffic jam-up is that it is occurring at the peak of the tourist season when the town should be gussied up and welcoming to visitors who choose to stop by for a yogurt or a port-a-pot. Some of the city’s worst traffic back-ups are along Pratt Street, at the Inner Harbor, not a happy impression for those seeking recreation on an obliging summer day. The traffic clog along the waterfront will rival any car-strangled stretch in Montgomery County, even along I-270, Democracy Boulevard or the Capital Beltway (I-495) during peak hours. Baltimore hasn’t witnessed a mess of contradictions like this one since Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro Jr. tore up the trolley tracks and black-topped the cobblestone streets in the late 1940s and early 1950s to make way for automobiles. That happened at a time when General Motors was said to be subsidizing cities to abandon mass transit in favor of cars. D’Alesandro was celebrated as clairvoyant and futuristic at the time. He eliminated cumbersome trolleys that caused traffic to stop at every corner where a trolley idled and smoothed over the rough stone roads that jiggled motorist’s giblets as they bumped along at low speeds. And now, 70 years later, it’s futuristic to wish the trolleys were back and cars were banished. More recently, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has caught a headful of grief for killing chances of expanding Baltimore’s mass transit system. But perhaps he did the city a favor. If, in several years, Baltimore would have had a new and expanded public transportation system, there’d be more people on trains and fewer motorists to fine for traffic violations, creating negative cash flow in the municipal treasury. Maybe if Hogan’s reelected he has toll lanes in mind for Pratt Street. That would fatten the city’s coffers even more. Hogan had the city’s interests front and center after all. And now his Democratic opponent, Ben Jealous, wants to kill the cash cow by possibly reviving the Red Line subway extension. It’s easy to see why Pugh has cozied up to Hogan, even appeared in one of his commercials. It’s in the mayor’s best and future interest to keep the Red Line buried at the bottom of the sheaf on Hogan’s desk, lest the money source of camera fines dries up because people-movers might put them out of business. Traffic jams and speed cameras are oxymoronic – emphasis on the last three syllables. In Baltimore, at least, the cameras enable government to photograph the very traffic chaos that it has created.

Frank A. DeFilippo
Frank A. DeFilippo is an award-winning political commentator who lives and writes in Baltimore. DeFilippo has been writing about the comic opera of politics for more than 50 years. He reported on the Maryland General Assembly for 10 years before joining the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) as press secretary and speechwriter. Between times, he was a White House correspondent during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he has covered six national political conventions. DeFilippo is the author of Hooked, an alleged work of fiction, and an unpublished manuscript, Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.

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