Red-light camera network should stay, Chicago’s new transportation chief says

Suburban red-light cameras are caught up in a federal corruption scandal. Still, Gia Biagi told aldermen Chicago’s 300 red-light cameras need to remain in place as a “deterrent” to drivers who speed and run red lights.

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Chicago Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi testifies at her City Council confirmation hearing.

Chicago Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi testifies at her City Council confirmation hearing on Tuesday.

Fran Spielman/Sun-Times (file)

The visionary urban planner chosen by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to lead the Chicago Department of Transportation on Tuesday embraced the red-light camera program that motorists love to hate, saying Chicago has turned the page from a $2 million bribery scandal.

Suburban red-light cameras are caught up in a still-unfolding federal corruption scandal. Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza declared this week she would stop helping suburbs collect those revenues.

But Gia Biagi told aldermen at her confirmation hearing that Chicago’s 300 red-light cameras have served their purpose in improving driver safety and must remain in place.

“Both red-light and speed zone indicators — through a study we did with Northwestern, I think, in 2017 — we know that they are a deterrent. Speeds do reduce [by] anywhere from 10% to 11%, particularly in areas around parks and schools,” Biagi told the City Council’s Transportation Committee.

“On the corruption side, we feel like we’ve reformed our program and think it’s pretty tight. But we’ll take a look at it and make sure that everything’s kosher.”

So, Biagi sees no need to revisit the entire program built on a $2 million bribery scandal that paid a convicted city bureaucrat $2,000 for every additional intersection?

“We definitely looked at it recently. Of course, we’ll take this opportunity to look again. But, we think we’re in pretty good shape,” the $174,588-a-year commissioner said.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to audit the city’s network of red-light cameras and “sunset those cameras that are only being used for revenue — not safety.”

Biagi reconciled her defense of red-light cameras with Lightfoot’s campaign promise by pointing to that $311,778 study by Northwestern University’s Traffic Center that charted a path forward for the widely-despised program.

Northwestern recommended — and the city agreed — to triple the “grace period” to three-tenths of a second for Chicago motorists caught on camera blowing through red lights. The city did that even though the longer grace period could mean a 29% drop in the number of $100 tickets issued.

The city also agreed to begin relocating cameras from six existing intersections to five others where the study showed red-light cameras would have a greater impact on safety.

Going forward, the study recommended a “tool to evaluate” red-light camera intersections “with a grade from A-to-D” based on a series of factors, including the trend of violations and traffic crashes.

The 105-page study also recommended that the widely-despised program continue because of “significant safety benefits” that include: a 19% reduction in “serious side-angle and turning crashes”; a 10% reduction in “injury-producing” crashes and a “measurable spillover effect” that improved safety, even at intersections without red-light cameras.

“It wasn’t us saying this. It was Northwestern looking at the program and saying, `Yes, they’re a deterrent,’ “ Biagi said.

“But ... it’s complicated. We need to be working closely locally with folks about where they ought to go and paying attention to what the mayor is saying about making sure that we’re not putting cameras that are unduly a burden on residents.”

Biagi takes the reins at CDOT one day after Chicago started implementing a $40 million congestion fee that tripled the tax on ride-hailing passengers traveling solo to and from downtown and slapped a 74% increase on ride-hailing trips in Chicago neighborhoods that go nowhere near downtown.

The initial steps will tide the city over pending a long-term study on how a more complicated and broader London-style congestion fee might work in Chicago.

The new commissioner was asked what the next generation of Chicago’s congestion fee should look like.

“A lot of cities are looking at this. You look at, on one end, what Paris is doing. They’re looking at delivery trucks. You have other models in Stockholm and Singapore,” Biagi said.

“We want to make sure what we do is right for Chicago — not just cut-and-paste from somewhere else. That’s why we do need to study it and decide, are other vehicles part of this? Is there a different way to think about it? What’s the right geography?”

Yet another focus for Biagi will be reversing the precipitous decline in CTA bus ridership — triggered, in part, by population losses — by increasing speedier bus options beyond LoopLink and Jeffrey Jump so buses become what she called the “first, best option.”

“Looking at where we can put in these bus priority zones. Making it as efficient as possible. It’s absolutely critical — especially for places that aren’t as close to a major transportation node, like a train station,” she said.

“It’s definitely an important pillar of this administration. To make sure that we have the best bus system in the world. And part of that is having bus priority zones that make it quicker and reliable. That’s what will enable people to want to use it.”

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