City plans fines—but will drop threat of driver’s license point—for those who ‘block the box’

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City plans to drop threat of driver’s license point for those who ‘block the box’
A familiar scene for Baltimore drivers: a Maryland Transit Administration bus blocks the intersection of Fayette Street and Guilford Avenue downtown. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

When a public hearing began Wednesday night for a resolution to sync up all of Baltimore’s traffic lights before the city’s “Don’t Block the Box” traffic-enforcement program takes effect, Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Department of Transportation officials didn’t appear to be on the same page about the penalties.

DOT announced last month that it will start fining drivers $90—and giving them a point on their driver’s license—if they’re caught jamming themselves into an intersection after a light turns red. Young, who proposed the light-synchronization resolution, objects to the latter piece.

“The citizens of Baltimore are redlined by the insurance industry,” he told DOT officials, referring to the practice by which insurers discriminate against applicants based on their race or geography. “We don’t want to have to come back and have the council put a bill in to stop you all from doing it altogether. If people get points, then that’s what’s going to happen.”

Young said Mayor Catherine Pugh has pushed for the same modification to the rule. Her spokesman, James Bentley II, confirmed Thursday afternoon that Pugh is “100 percent in agreement that there should not be a point assessed.”

Young concluded the hearing without hearing from DOT officials about whether they plan to drop the point from consideration. However, speaking with Baltimore Fishbowl outside City Hall, Ebony Wimbush, chief of staff for current Transportation Director Michelle Pourciau, said DOT will commit to the change.

“We’re gonna work with the administration and come up with something that makes sense to enforce without a point,” she said.

Young’s call comes as parking officers and police prepare to begin penalizing drivers caught blocking the intersection, similarly to Washington D.C., Philadelphia and New York. Officials say under state law, drivers can be assessed a $90 citation plus a point if they’re caught blocking the box, as it’s known. DOT wants to start enforcing the rule in June, after a 30-day warning period for drivers.

Young has more broadly proposed the city first sync up all of its traffic lights to give drivers a better chance of not getting bogged down in traffic.

The council president said the state of the signals at present is “ridiculous.” He offered an example of when he once sat for 25 minutes outside of City Hall just to travel two blocks. Councilman Eric Costello, chair of the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee, which called Wednesday night’s hearing, mentioned a similar case from just yesterday of being stalled by lights for 15 minutes while driving in the Inner Harbor—”and it wasn’t a traffic issue,” he said.

Muhammed Khalid, DOT’s chief engineer and deputy director, explained how DOT plans to “optimize” 13 major intersections in the next month, all of them downtown or near the Inner Harbor, time them to work with the rest of their corridors’ lights. Those cross streets already being evaluated, he said.

As for the rest of the lights, an all-out overhaul is an expensive order. Khalid explained that the city has its own 24-hour Traffic Management Center, commissioned in 2008, that can monitor traffic signals remotely, enable timing changes (without having to send a technician out) and synchronize the lights.

But only 400 of Baltimore’s roughly 1,400 signals are communicating with the management center at present, he said; the other 1,000 or so require manual adjustment.

DOT has about $4.5 million to put towards upgrading traffic signal communication, Khalid said. Bringing the entire system “into the 21st century” would require far more money–$17 million per year over the next six years, a total sum of $102 million, he estimated.

The councilman asked why, if that’s how much the city needs for a full upgrade, did Mayor Pugh request $50 million in a March 29 letter to state officials for traffic-system upgrades. Khalid said he did not know.

“I think the $102 million is to have a 100 percent, 21st-century system in place, versus, what are our critical needs? That’s how I believe that $50 million was estimated,” he said.

Another discrepancy that needs to be resolved: Baltimore already has an ordinance on the books that penalizes drivers for “impeding traffic,” subjecting them to a $250 fine, per the City Charter.

“Why both?” Costello posed, referring to the differing penalties of the city ordinance and the state law. “I’m not suggesting one is right or one is wrong; I’m just curious about how that decision will be made” about which one to enforce.

He requested DOT explain its decision to enforce whichever law, in writing, by May 18.

Frank Murphy, formerly transportation director for about four years and now a senior advisor to Pourciau, said after the hearing that the city utilized state policy–not the city’s $250 fine–when it launched a similar “Don’t Block the Box” initiative 10 years ago. Asked if the city’s “impeding” rule is ever enforced by transportation officers, Murphy said, “At this point I don’t believe it is.”

He said DOT will need to see which law is “more appropriate for this,” and “that’s why we have to do our homework.”

The committee will vote on Young’s light-synchronization resolution after DOT reports back. In the meantime, transportation officials plan to move forward with “Don’t Block the Box” efforts once the below 13 intersections are synced up.

Khalid that should be ready by June 14. Drivers will receive warnings for the first month, after which they can expect a fine.

  • E. Pratt and Light streets
  • E. Pratt and S. Calvert streets
  • E. Lombard and Light streets
  • E. Lombard and South streets
  • E. Lombard and S. Calvert streets
  • N. Charles and W. Baltimore streets.
  • N. Charles and W. Saratoga streets
  • E. Baltimore and St. Paul streets
  • E. Baltimore and N. Calvert streets
  • E. Baltimore and South streets
  • Cathedral and W. Mulberry streets
  • E. Fayette Street and Guilford Avenue
  • E. Lexington and St. Paul streets

This story has been updated.

Ethan McLeod
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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in Baltimore City Paper, Leafly, DCist and BmoreArt, among other outlets. He enjoys basketball, humid Mid-Atlantic summers and story tips.
Ethan McLeod
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