Baltimore’s efforts to affordably control traffic and promote resident safety have hit a bump in the road due to a shortage of poles, a basic component for the installation of stop signs, speed hump alerts and other street markers.

The severity of Baltimore’s pole shortage, and how exactly supplies got so low, isn’t clear. Councilman Mark Conway said the shortage has delayed stop sign and speed hump installations in his district. And at one point earlier this year, the city was out of poles completely, according to Councilman Ryan Dorsey, who said a transportation staff member informed him months ago that the department had ordered too few poles.

But the Baltimore City Department of Transportation noted in a statement that 2022 has been a record year for laying new speed humps, installations the agency doesn’t do without accompanying signage. The agency said it has been able to continue work in spite of the low supply of poles, though a spokesperson did not say how long the shortage has persisted.

Marly Cardona-Moz said the department tries to reorder materials when the supply reaches “half mass,” or 50% of stock. Currently, the city’s supply is “at or below” 25%.

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While the city’s stockpile of sign poles may sound like an obscure and inconsequential detail, Jed Weeks, interim executive director of the cycling advocacy group Bikemore, said road signs and speed humps are among a set of cheap, easy tools the city can use to help control traffic and protect residents. The transportation agency often doesn’t have the resources to pursue the sorts of multimillion-dollar projects that would have transformative effects for city streets, Weeks said.

But if supply shortages are also holding the city back from expanding cheaper traffic-calming measures, that only compounds the problem, he added.

“While it may not be pretty,” Weeks said of signs, speed humps and other road installations, “it’s what saves lives overnight, and it’s what we can afford to do.”

Each year in Baltimore hundreds of bicyclists and pedestrians are involved in vehicle collisions, and thousands of accidents result in injuries annually. The city transportation department recorded 4,865 crashes that resulted in injuries in 2020, and another 5,259 such crashes last year, according to the agency’s 2022 “Complete Streets” report. In 2021, 47 people were killed in Baltimore crashes, down from 63 in 2020 and comparable to 45 in 2019.

In a statement, Cardona-Moz said the Department of Transportation’s low supply of poles justified an emergency authorization earlier this month to replenish materials and honor construction schedules. Agency crews have been “incredibly resourceful,” Cardona-Moz said, relying on a combination of contracts to ensure that work has continued in spite of material shortages, allowing the department to lay 168 speed humps this year, breaking a 13-year-old city record.

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The department won’t install new speed humps without accompanying signs, but Cardona-Moz said they have been able to continue work by reprioritizing paving near existing sign posts.

Even so, Conway, who represents neighborhoods in North Baltimore, said the pole shortage has become an issue in his district. Traffic safety is a top concern for residents, and new speed humps are among their most frequent requests, Conway said. Lately the councilman has cautioned constituents that, because of the pole shortage, they may have to wait for new signs and speed humps.

Until recently, Baltimore hadn’t made a serious effort to curb longstanding problems with speeding and car crashes, Conway said. The city now has transportation leadership committed to tackling those hazards in flexible and creative ways, one possible contributor to the current low stock of poles, he said. “But a lack of materials limits their ability to actually implement these strategies,” he added.

Baltimore’s purchasing woes have escalated in recent years, contributing to delays, backlogs and shortages in seemingly every corner of city government. Procurement issues are frequently cited in construction delays. As of last month, the Baltimore Police Department had exhausted its supply of a key chemical component needed for DNA tests, leaving it scrambling to find it elsewhere. And in June, two water treatment plants in Northeast Baltimore came within days of exhausting their supply of a critical purification chemical, due in part to a mishap in the city Bureau of Procurement.

City administrator Christopher J. Shorter has made procurement reforms central to his agenda, looking to modernize city buying and spending through Workday, a unified system that includes finance, budget, procurement and human resources functions. The system has had a complicated and often rocky rollout, however. Shorter, meanwhile, plans to leave Baltimore for a new job as a county executive in Northern Virginia.

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In a recent hearing before Baltimore City Council, Department of Transportation Director Steve Sharkey said his agency put more signs in place this year than expected and acknowledged that the agency had erred in ordering too few poles for street signs. But Sharkey, who is stepping down from the agency to take a position in the mayor’s office, also pointed to needed reforms to the city’s purchasing system, estimating that contracting for new materials typically takes “at least nine months to a year.”

“My personal belief is the system somehow needs to be easier,” Sharkey said, calling problems with purchasing “endemic” and suggesting that agencies need more flexibility to adapt when supplies get low. “We probably need some training for staff, but we also need to make it easier to do.”

But in this case, the transportation department was able to get both a contract and additional funds for poles approved within the last year and a half, and is in the process of securing two more contracts.

City procurement specialist Bolu Oluwasuji said that in July 2021 the Bureau of Procurement approved the Department of Transportation for a noncompetitive poles contract, meaning the city didn’t vet multiple suppliers to find the best price because of time pressures. Four months later, the department said it had burned through the money on its contract and needed to add more funding for poles, which the procurement division also approved.

Then, in October of this year, the transportation department came back again requesting a noncompetitive bid for poles, Oluwasuji said. The procurement division insisted on seeking out the best price this time around, the purchasing official said, but transportation officials also asked for an emergency authorization to immediately address their shortage.

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That emergency authorization was approved in November, according to the Department of Transportation, and is awaiting fulfillment. Bidding opens this week for the competitive contract from October.

A beleaguered procurement system undoubtedly hamstrings the Department of Transportation, said Dorsey, but the Northeast Baltimore councilman said the agency also needs to be more proactive about ordering the supplies it needs to meet its own priorities.

Dorsey said a transportation department staff member informed him that earlier this year the agency had completely exhausted its supply of sign poles. Traffic safety is “literally an entire city problem,” he added, and basic tools like stop signs and speed humps are important components in the broader strategy for protecting pedestrians, cyclists and drivers, the councilman said.

“We need to have all of the tools possible to alleviate traffic safety problems in literally every neighborhood of the city,” Dorsey said.

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Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

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