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Emanuel embraces countdown clocks at red-light camera intersections

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Thursday embraced a costly plan to mandate countdown signals at every one of Chicago’s 174 red-light camera intersections and vowed to pay five more tickets issued to his own motorcade for running red lights.

Unlike his mayoral challengers, who want to scrap red-light cameras altogether to appease angry motorists, Emanuel said he’s determined to keep the cameras in place, but “reform” the system.

“I’d rather use technology to enforce traffic safety so our police officers, rather than writing traffic tickets, are actually out there fighting guns and gangs. They can’t be doing both,” the mayor said.

“I want to make sure that we have the countdown clock throughout the system. That’s another additional reform. Always be open to changing. But, making sure we never give up the public safety and traffic safety gains that we’ve made.”

The mayor noted that he fired the red-light camera contractor at the center of a $2 million bribery scandal and holds weekly meetings with the new contractor to make certain there are no “unnatural spikes” in red-light tickets.

And he reminded reporters that he has added no new red-light cameras to a big-city network that is already the largest in the nation and, in fact, removed red-light cameras at 16 intersections where the number of right-angle crashes has been reduced.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel says using red-light cameras for some traffic-enforcement duties frees up officers to investigate more serious matters. | File Photo

Last week, two influential aldermen demanded countdown signals to avert the need for motorists to slam on the brakes to avoid getting nailed, sometimes causing rear-end collisions.

It was part of a broader reform plan that also included requiring 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.”

Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th) and Economic and Capital Development Committee Chairman Tom Tunney (44th) 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.

Twice in the last six years, Beale has proposed countdown signals at red-light intersections, only to hit a dead-end because of the cost. It’s a minimum of $15,000 per corner and upward of $45,000 at the oldest signals. That means the overall price tag could top $7.8 million.

In endorsing the countdown signals Thursday, Emanuel made no mention of how he would pay for them. Beale has argued that the cost could easily be covered by the tens of millions of dollars in fines generated each year by red-light cameras.

The mayor’s office later noted that half of all 3,000 signalized intersections in Chicago already have countdown signals. At intersections with red-light cameras, 129 of 174 already have them, with five more in the works.

The five new, $100 tickets issued to the black SUVs that whisk Emanuel around the city mark the second time that his motorcade has been nailed by the same red-light and speed camera tickets that haunt everyday Chicagoans.

Last spring, an admittedly embarrassed Emanuel paid the tickets and said he had directed his bodyguards to slow down and stop running red lights after a television station disclosed that his motorcade had been slapped with 17 red-light tickets and three speed warnings since 2012.

This time, the mayor vowed to pay up again. But his explanation for the tickets was a little different.

“Since there’s a tail car, there are some instances where they need to get through a light because they can’t get separated from the first car. That may be what’s happening but, whatever it is, I pay ’em even though I’m not driving,” Emanuel said.

If that sounds a bit like a my-dog-ate-my-homework excuse, it shouldn’t, the mayor said.

“I didn’t say that. I said I was gonna pay it. That’s what it means when you’re not above the law. It couldn’t be clearer. I’m not driving, but I will pay it because it’s enforceable from a safety standpoint,” he said.

Last year, Inspector General Joe Ferguson faulted the Chicago Department of Transportation for exercising “benign neglect” in its oversight of a red-light camera contractor at the center of a bribery scandal, allowing both suspicious ticketing spikes and equipment failures that may have cost the city millions to go unnoticed.

At Emanuel’s request, Ferguson conducted an exhaustive review of the nation’s largest red-light camera program that followed a Chicago Tribune investigation questioning the legitimacy of thousands of $100 tickets.

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

To the contrary, he found that 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.

Late last year, a City Council committee held a hearing on Chicago’s scandal-scarred 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 has been a sea change between CDOT’s negligent oversight over Redflex and the department’s diligence in monitoring Xerox.

Still, mayoral challenger Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) has been urging his supporters to sign petitions demanding that Emanuel refund $7.7 million in fines generated by red-light cameras after the timing of tickets processed for running yellow lights was reduced from 3 seconds to 2.9 seconds.