From Guards to a $20M Camera System at Houston Park-Ride Lots

When the Metropolitan Transit Authority canceled its security guard contract for Park & Ride lots in January 2005, it replaced the on-site guards with roving Metro police and a promise to add surveillance cameras.

Now those officers are about to get that long-awaited helping hand. The Metro board voted last week to buy a $20 million wireless system for video surveillance and traffic signal control.

It will enable one officer in the Houston TranStar traffic control center to monitor activity at 25 Park & Ride lots and the Hillcroft Transit Center, said Erik Oistad, Metro vice president for information technology.

The network also will monitor traffic signals at 156 intersections in far west Houston.

The equipment, from Pfeiffer & Son Inc., of La Porte, is to be in service by early next year.

Oistad said federal funds will cover $15 million of the cost, with Metro picking up the other $5 million.

The equipment's life is estimated at 10 years, but using guards would have cost Metro about $1 million a year for the same period, the agency estimates.

The MetroNet system comprises 343 cameras, including pan-and-zoom and ultra-wide-angle fisheye models, 150 remote-controllable security gates, 110 emergency "blue phones," 22 public address systems, and the software to operate them.

Oistad said the software is programmable to recognize various kinds of suspicious activity and flag it for the person at the monitor, who could not otherwise keep track of input from so many cameras.

It can recognize movement of various sorts, colors, and even such specific occurrences as a person walking from car to car, or - during an Amber Alert, for instance - a large person standing beside a small one, he said.

The board watched a demonstration video shot at the Downtown Transit Center. Oistad said the software was programmed to alert the viewer if any of three things happened: a vehicle smaller than a bus parking in the bus bay, a pedestrian entering the area reserved for buses, or an object being left on the loading dock for more than 30 seconds.

In the demonstration, a Metro officer drove his patrol car into the bay, strolled across the driveway to the dock and left a package. "Gotcha," Oistad said, as the computer drew a red square around each occurrence.

Some board members were skeptical.

"It seems like we're putting a $20 million system on one clerk," Jackie Freeman said.

"The effectiveness of the system is primarily going to be riding on your ability to program it for these incidents," he said. "Give me an example of how you would program it for a guy asking to borrow a cell phone and then taking off with it."

Metro Police Chief Tom Lambert replied that in such a case, the victim would report the theft on one of the blue phones and police would scroll back the video, which he said yields "evidence quality" images from up to 300 feet.

"If we knew a person was in a blue Mercedes-Benz 280, we could go back and find the license plate number," Lambert said. The system also enables the gates to the lot to be locked remotely, he said.

Although there are no current plans to install cameras at the 156 intersections, the software will enable personnel at TranStar to monitor and control the traffic signals at these locations, said Metro spokeswoman Raequel Roberts.


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