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January 31st, 2007 Ian Demsky | News Stories
 

Red Light District

Portland seeks to double its cameras at traffic lights, but the company holding the city's no-bid contract has some legal troubles of its own.

     
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The City of Portland is finalizing plans to double the number of cameras at traffic lights to 12 in a deal with a company that faces charges in another city of bribing police to win contracts.

That Texas-based company, Affiliated Computer Systems, has contracted with Portland since 2001 for the six currently operating cameras that nail 9,000 people a year for running red lights. They also contract with the city to provide cameras that catch another 26,000 people for speeding.

Under the contract, ACS's cut amounts to about 45 percent of Portland's share of the ticket proceeds, or up to $27 of the city's $60 share from a typical $237 citation. (The rest of the proceeds is divided among the state, county, courts and a victims'-compensation fund.)

We'd love to tell you how much ACS has been making, but the city hasn't responded to WW's Jan. 11 public-records request for those totals. The contract awards ACS fees on a sliding scale that goes down from $27 as ticket volume increases.

We do know that Portland's City Council renewed the three- to five-year contract in March 2006 on a no-bid basis despite ACS's legal problems, which first surfaced in the Canadian press in 2004.

The Fortune 500 company's contract is administered by the Police Bureau, which falls under the responsibility of Mayor Tom Potter.

The mayor's office declined to comment and directed WW's inquiries back to the Police Bureau, which defends the city's arrangement with ACS.

ACS's problems elsewhere have been reported by newspapers in Canada and in the Macon Telegraph in Macon, Ga., which is considering a contract with ACS.

In February 2006, a few weeks before ACS's contract with Portland was renewed without being opened to new bidders, Canadian authorities wrapped up an 18-month investigation and filed charges against ACS, alleging the company had bribed two police officers in Edmonton, Alberta, to help secure a $90 million, 20-year contract. Charges are still pending.

The two Edmonton police officers are accused of taking "unauthorized perks, including free travel, from ACS—a firm they touted to city councillors as the only one able to do the job," the Edmonton Sun reported.

ACS spokesman Kevin Lightfoot said Friday that the company is "vigorously defending itself against the unproven allegations."

A consulting firm also recently told the City of Edmonton it would be cheaper by $600,000 a year to run the photo enforcement program itself. And in November, ACS's chief financial and executive officers resigned after improperly handled stock options were found to have violated the company's ethics code.

Portland's contract with ACS states it was not opened to other bidders because ACS "was found to be the only vendor providing photo radar and photo red-light services using wet-film [as opposed to digital] cameras."

But Jay Heiler, director of government affairs for competitor Redflex, which runs a digital system for the City of Beaverton, told WW, "We would love an opportunity to bid for Portland's business."

He adds: "It's unusual for cities to still be using wet film, because the advantages of digital are overwhelming." Redflex still has a few wet-film systems in places like Culver City, Calif.

Portland police traffic Lt. Mark Kruger says the city is now looking into digital, but in the past valued the clarity offered by film to show a driver's face.

"We have not seen another program that has offered a higher citation-issuance level based on the parameters of the Oregon law," Kruger says. Better pictures means police can issue more citations, and ACS's rate of photos usable for issuing citations was more than double what Redflex's rate in Beaverton had been, he says.

Portland police and local transportation gurus praise ACS cameras as "a tremendous public-safety tool" that has reduced serious crashes at problem intersections.

A 2005 report to the state Legislature says more dangerous turning crashes at the half-dozen intersections fell after cameras were installed, while rear-end crashes increased. The Federal Highway Administration estimates each camera saves about $40,000 per year in damages and emergency services.

The city has had "no concerns" with ACS's performance locally, Kruger says. The Portland City Council unanimously renewed the contract with ACS in 2006 as part of its consent agenda, in which items deemed routine are approved as a group without discussion. The company also contracts with such cities as Atlanta, Baltimore and Cleveland.

 
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