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Most of Emanuel’s red-light camera reforms OK’d by committee

Two months ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel removed 50 red-light cameras at 25 Chicago intersections where accidents had been reduced to put out a political fire that threatened to burn him in the runoff election April 7.

On Tuesday, the City Council’s Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety delivered on the other red-light camera reforms the mayor promised to minimize the fallout from a Richard M. Daley legacy nearly as despised as the deal that sold off city parking meters.

The mayor was prodded into action by Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th) and Economic, Capital and Technology Development Committee Chairman Tom Tunney (44th), who introduced their own, more far-reaching reforms in January.

Beale and Tunney wanted countdown signals along with a mandate that yellow lights at intersections monitored by red-light cameras to be “no less than 3.2 seconds or the recognized national standards, plus one additional second, whichever is greater.”

Their ordinance also demanded three things before new red-light cameras are installed: a traffic study to assess the safety impact; a public hearing in the affected community at least three months in advance; and City Council approval of every designated intersection.

The substitute ordinance advanced Tuesday includes some of those changes, but not all of them.

A neighborhood hearing would be held before red-light cameras are “removed, moved or added” to give neighbors a chance to object. But City Council approval would not be required.

“It’s important that we have clear, objective criteria and it’s not subject to an individual’s decision,” Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld said.

The substitute ordinance also includes payment reforms that reduce the required downpayment and ease up on motorists who can demonstrate financial hardship.

And the Chicago Department of Transportation would engage a team of academics with expertise in traffic engineering and traffic safety to conduct a “comprehensive review” of the red-light camera program after examining “best practices” across the nation.

Among other things, they’ll be charged with determining criteria for future removal and placement of cameras

Conspicuously absent from the revised ordinance are plans to lengthen yellow lights.

“We do not want to encourage people to speed. That’s a fundamental position that we have. . . . Yellow light times have been the same standard time in Chicago for decades. It’s three seconds for streets that have a posted 30 mph speed limit. We would not lengthen them just to allow for speeders,” Scheinfeld said.

“We believe the length of our yellow lights are appropriate for driving conditions in Chicago and the expectation that drivers should be maintaining speed within the legal speed limit. Given the fact that there are closely spaced intersections and very dense driving conditions here in Chicago, they should be prepared to stop frequently.”

Traffic Committee Chairman Walter Burnett (27th) said 82 red-light cameras have been removed in the four years since Emanuel took office.

“If it was about revenue, we wouldn’t be taking out all the cameras,” the alderman said. Burnett noted in some neighborhoods “people are asking for red-light cameras and speed cameras.”

Emanuel inherited the red-light camera program from Daley and has had nothing but headaches from it.

He fired the Arizona contractor at the center of a $2 million bribery scandal and replaced Redflex Traffic Systems with Xerox State & Local Solutions Traffic Solutions.

When a Chicago Tribune investigation questioned the legitimacy of thousands of $100 tickets, Emanuel asked Inspector General Joe Ferguson to conduct an exhaustive review of the red-light camera program.

Last fall, Ferguson faulted the Chicago Department of Transportation for exercising “benign neglect” in its oversight of Reflex, allowing both suspicious ticketing spikes and equipment failures that may have cost the city millions to go unnoticed.

The inspector general said he found no evidence of “willful manipulation” by either the city or Redflex to ratchet up the number of tickets.

To the contrary, he found the city’s failure to exercise its legal obligation to oversee the now-fired contractor may have cost the city money.

Changes in the timing of yellow lights did not contribute to the ticketing spikes, the IG concluded. But he nevertheless recommended that CDOT “restore a prior hard 3.0 second yellow-light threshold for violations” to ensure clarity and consistency.

When Xerox took over for Redflex, CDOT gave the new contractor the go-ahead to accept tickets with a yellow light duration of 2.9 seconds to account for slight variations from the signal power source. That generated roughly 77,000 tickets.

The inspector general had previously concluded there was no evidence to substantiate the city’s claim that red-light cameras have either reduced accidents or are installed at the most dangerous intersections.

Ferguson said the Chicago Department of Transportation was unable to produce evidence that accident data was used in the selection of red-light camera locations or that CDOT continually evaluates accident data to relocate cameras to the most dangerous spots.

In fact, in the decade since the program began, Ferguson noted that only 10 cameras at five intersections have been moved.

Last fall, a City Council committee held a hearing on Chicago’s red-light camera program that provided a forum for the Emanuel administration to showcase its efforts to restore public trust severely shaken by unexplained ticket spikes.

Ferguson stressed then that there had been a sea change between CDOT’s negligent oversight of Redflex and the department’s diligence in monitoring Xerox.