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Despite scandal, Emanuel says red-light cameras here to stay

Chicago’s widely-despised red-light camera program is here to stay, even though it was built on a $2 million bribery scandal that allegedly paid a former city bureaucrat for every additional intersection.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel made that perfectly clear Monday, even as federal prosecutors maintained during closing arguments that former Chicago Department of Transportation official John Bills and Arizona-based Redflex Traffic Systems “deserve world championship rings for how they played the game of bribery.”

“The corruption is about how the firm got this contract, and we’ve made changes in the firm and in the operations of that contract,” the mayor said.

“It still plays a role in safety on our streets as it relates to side crashes. That data is pretty clear. But when the first questions were about the firm and how they got awarded that contract prior to my administration, we sent them out the door.”

Pressed on the alleged arrangement that would pay Bills for every additional intersection where red-light cameras were installed, Emanuel said, “That’s why we’ve made changes.”

But what about removing red-light cameras from even more intersections? The mayor was asked why that isn’t being done based on state accident data.

“I don’t have the exact number but I think the [number of] red-light camera intersections have been cut by a quarter-to-a-third,” the mayor said.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, acknowledged that there is nothing the mayor could do to stop a high-ranking city bureaucrat who allegedly “went rogue” to line his own pockets.

But Beale demanded that Emanuel use crash statistics provided by the Illinois Department of Transportation to immediately remove red-light cameras at intersections where accidents, tickets and revenue are way down.

The commissioner [of transportation] has the data now . . . If the data shows they need to be removed, we don’t need to wait for the committee” of experts charged with establishing criteria for future removal and placement of cameras, Beale said.

“It was supposed to be for safety reasons, but we knew there was an underlying reason for cameras and that was revenue. If cameras aren’t generating revenue and a lot of people are not running red lights and there are not a lot of accidents, we need to remove those cameras immediately —e specially in communities that can least afford it.”

CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey said the committee of traffic engineering and safety experts began its review in November, and City Hall is awaiting those results before removing additional cameras.

“We will consider their advice and recommendations for strengthening the program going forward, which includes best practices for locating cameras, and how best to study traffic safety impacts and effects. We are awaiting the academic team’s recommendations before completing our analysis of the 2014 traffic safety data,” Claffey wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Last year, Emanuel removed 50 red-light cameras at 25 more Chicago intersections where accidents have been reduced to put out a political fire that had threatened to burn him in the April 7 runoff.

That left Chicago with 298 red-light cameras at 149 intersections — a 20 percent reduction in the nation’s largest red-light camera program installed by former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Vanquished mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia had promised to end, what he called the “red light rip-off” by removing every one of Chicago’s red-light cameras on his first day in office. He never said how he would replace the money.

Millionaire businessman Willie Wilson, who got 25 percent of the black vote Feb. 24, also made red-light cameras an issue before throwing his support to Garcia in Round 2.

To restore public confidence in the scandal-scarred program, Emanuel also sped up the timetable for installation of countdown clocks at 42 red-light intersections that still didn’t have them and embraced red-light camera reforms championed by a pair of influential aldermen.

After the election, the reforms sought by Beale (9th) and Economic, Capital and Technology Development Committee Chairman Tom Tunney (44th) were watered down.

Beale and Tunney had wanted yellow lights at red-light intersections to be “no less than 3.2 seconds or the recognized national standards, plus one additional second, whichever is greater” but settled for no change.

And instead of mandating City Council approval before new red-light cameras are “removed, moved or added,” the aldermen settled for a neighborhood hearing and payment plan reforms.

CDOT also promised to 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 to determine criteria for future removal and placement of cameras.

Still, Emanuel remained committed to the program that Chicago motorists love to hate — and the reason is revenue.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported last summer that red light cameras had churned out 2.2 million tickets and generated $284.9 million in fines since Emanuel took office, a revenue source the cash-strapped city simply cannot afford to relinquish, records show.

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

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.