Zurik: Fouled-up school zone flashers anger drivers, cost N.O. millions

Zurik: Fouled-up school zone flashers anger drivers, cost N.O. millions
Published: May. 25, 2016 at 2:15 AM CDT|Updated: May. 25, 2016 at 8:29 AM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Records show, for at least the past five school years, the City of New Orleans can't seem to fix a problem that impacts all of us.  It may save you money in the short run, but it directly affects our kids - and possibly our taxes.

Video helps tell a story that could impact the safety of your kids and the pocketbook of many taxpayers.

The video shows a driver's view on a recent Sunday past a school zone light, flashing.  When the cell phone camera tilts down and zooms to the dashboard clock. The time reads 6:38 p.m. - the school zone light was flashing more than 12 hours before kids would be in the area again, going to school.

Conrad Rafael says such speed zone light malfunctions often have an easy fix. At one time, Rafael was a city employee, fired to fix malfunctioning flashers.

"I hired on with the expectation of fixing a problem, and I wasn't allowed to," he tells us. "And I quit because of it."

A tour of city streets reveals many of New Orleans' school zone flashers don't work. Rafael estimates about 60 percent are malfunctioning at any given time: "either totally dead like this one or going off at the wrong times."

The city has documents online that show how many speeding tickets authorities had to waive because of an inoperable flasher. It helps show the problem, and also how the fixes simply don't work.

Look at the data from Paris Avenue and Crescent Drive.  In October 2014, the city only waived one ticket.  The flasher seemed to be working.  But looking month by month, that shot up to more than 1,100 waived tickets.

The flasher seemed to be fixed in September 2015 - only one waived ticket.  But that shot back up to 1,100 again, in November 2015.

The city's own data show a significant amount of flashers that are not working, month in and month out.

City leaders downplayed the problem.

"We're constantly looking at that and we're constantly making repairs," says Lt. Col. Mark Jernigan, the city's public works director.

Jernigan acknowledges that flasher malfunctions have been a challenge for his department. "We've got a lot of visibility," he says. "We want to make sure we getting 100 percent of the system operating.  And it's a constant battle to keep it at 100 percent."

The director says his staff only found a dozen or so not working last week.

"This is something that we work with a lot," Jernigan insists.  "And we do routine maintenance on the school zone flashers, constantly. This is one of the things, just like streetlights, where every day we make progress, we make fixes.  And then we get reports occasionally of a school zone's flashers going out for various reasons."

Rafael says he fixed a large number of flashers when he worked for the city.  Many required a quick, simple fix.

"You see that thing up there, the solar panel?" he asks as we examined a flasher. "It has to be pointing at the sun, or else it won't stay charged. It will go dead."

And a lot of the inoperable lights have panels pointed in the wrong direction.

The nonprofit news organization The Lens started investigating school zone flashers last year.  In February 2015, they published a map of flashers that did and didn't work.

Click here to view an interactive version of The Lens' map.

Earlier this month we interviewed Rafael in front of a broken flasher at the intersection of Carrollton and Cohn.  According to The Lens, that same flasher didn't work 15 months ago.

In March of this year, we found broken flashers at Gentilly and Franklin. The Lens found the same problem 13 months earlier.

"Just about every one of these, throughout the city, is defective," Rafael says.  "And people are speeding through the school zones, the neighbors are complaining, there's money being lost to the radar cameras. It's just a bad situation."

From January 2015 to January 2016, the city says it waived 63,000 tickets because of school zone camera malfunctions.  If the city had collected a $150 ticket fine from just half of these speeders, it would have generated $4.7 million in revenue.

"This system, you know, is a very dynamic system," Jernigan remarks.  "We're doing everything we can with the resources we have to make it work and to keep it operational."

Jernigan insists the malfunctions the city isn't trying to hide the magnitude of the issue. "It's a constant challenge," he says.  "We've got resources, we go out, we assess the conditions, we respond to reports. We do whatever we can to make the system work and keep it operational."

Among the data collected by the city are lists of the top 10 malfunctioning flashers for a given year.  In February 2015, the public works department "noted that most of the top 10 malfunctioning school zone flashers were fixed." But that doesn't appear to be the case.

During the next month, eight of the top 10 most malfunctioning flashers in the February report appeared in the March report, too – including the lights at St. Charles and Jena. The city waived 847 speeding tickets in February due to inoperable flashers there, 1,200 in March.  And at Canal and Olympia, 1,600 tickets were waived in February, down to 1,100 in March.

Those numbers suggest the flashers may have been fixed, only to malfunction again.

Our former city employee says the problem is actually simple to solve.

"I told them after that, they needed software and a laptop to go into it and fix the rest of the problems," Rafael says.  "And the man before me, the person I worked with, he asked for it a year or two ago. They wouldn't give it to him."

He says the software is available, right on the Internet. "I know what I'm looking at, if I'm given the right tools to work with," he tells us. "I would think they could all be done in a matter of a few months."

But Rafael says his supervisors at City Hall didn't want to hear it.

With school out of for the summer, the city has about three months to fix a problem that's plagued them for years - a problem that could be a safety issue for your kids, and could help solve some money problems for a city strapped for cash.

The city told us Tuesday it's not aware of any school zone flashers not operational. They sent this statement to FOX 8:

At this time, the City's Department of Public Works is not aware of any school zone flashing beacons that are not operational. Because it is the end of the school year, the City will begin deactivating school zone flashing beacons starting late next week. All school zone flashing beacons will be periodically tested over the summer in preparation for the start of the new school year in the fall.

But we did find some that weren't working in the past week.

Those city records show, in 2013 and 2014, the city waived the most tickets in school zones. The past two years, the number's gone down to between 20,000 and 30,000 tickets waived.

If you notice a malfunctioning flasher in a school zone near you, call the city's 311 phone service to report it.

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