Speed-limit increase proposed due to spike in red-light tickets

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Five weeks ago, the chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee tried and failed to convince Mayor Rahm Emanuel to shut down Chicago’s scandal-scarred red-light camera program until Inspector General Joe Ferguson wraps up his investigation of unexplained spikes in red-light tickets.

Now, Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) is taking matters into his own hands — by raising the speed limit on a Far South Side stretch where, he claims, motorists are being unfairly nailed by a game of “Gotcha.”

Under the change, advanced by the Traffic Committee Monday and expected to be approved by the full Council on Wednesday, the speed limit on 127th Street between Indiana and Halsted would be raised from 30 mph to35 mph.

The speed limit for motorists coming off the Bishop Ford Freeway already stands at 35 mph. But, a sudden drop to 30 mphhas turned the red-light camera at 127th and Eggleston into a gold mine, Beale said.

“People were getting hit with a lot of tickets unnecessarily. The community was up in arms about it. This is one remedy to have traffic flow at a decent pace without people getting hit with tickets. This is my way of taking care of the residents on the Far South Side,” Beale said.

The chairman acknowledged that raising the speed limit is a partial solution and that it’ll take a lot more to restore public confidence in the red-light camera program at the center of a $2 million bribery scandal.

“Hopefully, we tweak the system to where there is some integrity put back in the system. Hopefully, the Department of Transportation monitors these spikes and figures out something is going wrong when there is a spike and corrects it without issuing all these tickets,” he said.

“If it’s truly about public safety, that’s what it should be about. When they see those spikes, all of those tickets should be voided.”

A top mayoral aide said the road in question is a state route and the City Council does not have the power to change the speed limit. Beale was told that a year ago–long before the spike in red-light tickets–but he pushed the ordinance through committee anyway earlier this week, the mayoral aide said.

In late July, Emanuel offered to review 16,000 red-light tickets issued during spikes at a dozen Chicago intersections. Motorists who exercise their right to a second look will be offered refunds if those tickets were issued in error, officials said.

To restore public confidence in the red light program severely shaken by a Chicago Tribune investigation, Emanuel also promised to post daily violations for each of the 352 red-light cameras posted at 174 Chicago intersections.

Beale was not appeased. He demanded that the city “put the brakes on the whole red-light system” until Ferguson’s investigation is completed.

“We’ll be protecting the integrity of the city. If something comes out that there was some type of impropriety that took place, there’s more room for disaster if we keep on down this road,” he said.

Noting that red-light cameras have generated upwards of $500 million for the cash-strapped city, Beale said, “If we keep on down this road, we just have room for exposure… If something comes out and this company has some type of exposure and they see a $500 million lawsuit coming their way, they’ll probably close their doors and file bankruptcy. And that will leave us, once again, holding the bag.”

Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld countered that the suspicious spikes were confined to less than one-half of one percent of all the violations issued during that period.

The following day, Emanuel said he was “angry” about the spikes, adding, “There should be no inequity in the system. There should be no aberration. And a company, even though it’s a small percentage less than one percent, it has to be 100 percent right for there to be trust.”

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