Chicago ain’t ready for red-light camera reform — at least not as much reform as some aldermen would like.
The City Council on Wednesday delivered on some of the changes Mayor Rahm Emanuel promised after removing red-light cameras at 25 more Chicago intersections to confront an issue that rose to the forefront during the mayoral campaign.
But the ordinance does not include some of the key elements originally sought by a pair of influential aldermen — Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th) and Economic, Capital and Technology Development Committee Chairman Tom Tunney (44th).
Beale and Tunney 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.”
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.
They settled for less.
Conspicuously absent from the ordinance approved Wednesday 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,” Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld said this week.
“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.”
The ordinance calls for a neighborhood hearing to 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,” Scheinfeld said.
The substitute ordinance promises countdown signals by June 1 at the nine red-light camera intersections that still don’t have them. It includes payment plan reforms that reduce the required down payment 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.
Vanquished mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia campaigned on a promise to get rid of red-light cameras on “Day One” of a Garcia administration.
In spite of the political furor, Emanuel remains committed to the program that Chicago motorists love to hate.
“Red-light enforcement cameras reduce some of the most dangerous crashes and allow our police officers to focus on preventing and fighting crime – not writing traffic violations,” the mayor said in a press release.
“I remain committed to making additional reforms to enhance public trust while maintaining this life saving program. Over the past few months, I heard your concerns about the program and announced reforms designed to seek public input and further improve safety, and we are building on those reforms today.”
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.
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 go unnoticed that may have cost the city millions.
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 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.
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 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 the unexplained ticket spikes.
Ferguson stressed then that there had been a sea change between CDOT’s negligent oversight over Redflex and the department’s diligence in monitoring Xerox.