Monday, May 03, 2010

Feds Pay for Sante Fe Transit Cams

Despite the ongoing budget squeeze, the City of Santa Fe’s transit division plans to spend more than $100,000 to install surveillance cameras on its bus fleet.

The cameras would be paid for with a combination of federal grants, including so-called economic “stimulus” funds through the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The grants will fund capital improvements, but not operational costs—equipment, but not people.

“It’s kind of a catch-22, in that we have funds to make the system better, but we don’t have funds to keep the operations going at the same level,” Santa Fe Trails and Transit Division Director Jon Bulthuis says.

The stimulus may have helped patch up highways around the country but, with state and city budgets shrinking, it’s been less successful at preventing layoffs and service cuts. At the City Council’s request, Bulthuis cut his current operating budget by 15 percent, reducing bus frequency on many routes.

While the bus may take longer to show up, rest assured that when one does arrive, the ride will be captured in a high-quality digital format.

The new surveillance cameras provide a case study on double standards in the federal funding process.

“I listen and roll my eyes back when I hear how this funding comes down. Rarely is it sensible,” Beth Mills, Santa Fe County community planner, says.

Mills is trying to find money for a bicycle and pedestrian trail connecting Eldorado and Santa Fe Community College, intended to offer those commuters an alternative to a dangerous stretch of road.

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economygovernmentbusSanta Fe Trailstransportationstimulus fundssurveillanceACLUbike trailsdisputeJohn BulthuisBeth Millsbicyclesbusesbus systemFederal grants offer a potential funding source—but while some projects must navigate flaming hoops to win money, others are essentially rubber-stamped.

“If we were to get federal traffic safety funds, we’d have to provide a study to show that having a bike-ped trail would cause a lessening in the number of accidents for bicyclists and pedestrians commuting between Eldorado and town. We would have to go through this whole analysis of how many people have been hit by cars,” Mills says.

Not only that, Mills would feel obliged to stage public forums on the project. “We need a public process, and we need a significant one before we can talk about moving any dirt,” she says.

Funding the new bus cameras, however, required only a grant application. And the public process is minimal: City Council will have a say on the project only after staff has reviewed the bids.

Transportation security has been a national obsession since the 9.11 attacks. Money has poured into public surveillance, despite little evidence that the technology has made anyone safer—not to mention privacy concerns. In a 2008 report, the American Civil Liberties Union attacked the quiet proliferation of surveillance cameras, citing studies in the US and United Kingdom showing the cameras have “little to no positive impact on crime.”

“It’s hard to control the misuse of the technology,” ACLU-New Mexico Executive Director Peter Simonson says. “Right now, it’s putting video surveillance systems on a bus, but…the fact is, we derive a great deal of privacy in this society from our anonymity. These cameras break down that expectation of privacy.”

Bulthuis’ chief concern isn’t crime, however—it’s investigating complaints against drivers. “They’re worth their weight in gold; they really are,” he says of the cameras. “Staff gets exonerated because we have that [video] data.” (AFSCME Local 3999 President Lawrence Vigil recently told the Journal North that a bus driver had been fired following a dispute with a passenger.)

According to a bid solicitation, the city wants each of its 30 fixed-route buses to be fitted with six DVR cameras; the 15 paratransit vehicles, depending on make and model, would get between two and five cameras each. In addition, between 13 and 16 cameras would be installed at the transit center on Rufina Street.

The city’s fixed-route buses are now fitted with old analog VCR cameras, Bulthuis says. Those tapes record over themselves every few hours, making them useless in resolving complaints that aren’t immediately reported. Bulthuis says DVR files will be kept for several days, but, “I don’t think forever.”