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Top mayoral aide defends lowering speed camera threshold

Ald. Anthony Beale demanded to know why the city is lowering the boom on more motorists while also leaving big money on the table, since in 50 locations, the speed camera is “facing in only one direction,” so only those vehicles with front plates can be caught on camera.

Chicago Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi testifies at her City Council confirmation hearing.
Chicago Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi
Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

A top mayoral aide Friday defended the Lightfoot administration’s plan to lower the threshold for speed camera tickets amid word that thousands of speeding motorists got off scot free because the city has speed cameras facing in only one direction.

With Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi on the hot seat at City Council budget hearings, aldermen demanded to know why the city was endangering pedestrians and motorists — and leaving sorely needed revenue on the table — by failing to position cameras around schools and parks in both directions.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), former longtime chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, said 50 speed camera locations are “covered by a camera facing in only one direction.”

That literally means only those motorists with front plates can be captured on camera and automatically mailed speed-cam tickets, along with photographic evidence of the violation.

Beale said he’s been told that in 2019 alone, Chicago’s top fifteen speed camera locations had “over 83,000 speeding vehicles” that did not have a front plate and, therefore, those motorists got away with speeding without being ticketed.

More than 70,000 of those vehicles were traveling at least 11 miles over the speed limit, he said.

If the city installed speed cameras in both directions, there would be no need to “nickel and dime” motorists by ticketing drivers going between 6 mph and 9 mph over the speed limit around schools and parks, Beale said.

“This is going to be another revenue generator on the backs of the people…We’re doing ourselves a disservice by lowering it. I think we should leave it as is,” Beale said.

“We still have, probably over 100,000 uncollected tickets from this year….Between 70,000 and 100,000 tickets that we could have issued if we had multiple cameras. Is that accurate?”

Biagi said she would “have to check that number” and get back to Beale.

But she defended Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s decision to start issuing $35 tickets to motorists caught driving between six and nine miles over the posted speed limit after a single warning notice.

“What we know from the data is that folks who get a ticket — 80% of ‘em don’t get another ticket for another year. Meaning it’s working,” Biagi said.

“That’s the idea. We want to lower speeds. It’s focused on safety. We feel that this is a way to really reduce those speeds and reduce fatalities.”

Ald. Samantha Nugent (39th) agreed with Beale that the city needs to “add cameras to get the other side of the vehicles to pick up” lost revenue.

“That is incredibly critical, particularly if we’re looking to make stronger restrictions and lowering the speed limit,” Nugent said.

Far North Side Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) added, “I think there’s over 50 locations where we’ve only got one pole. Where we could just do a better job of enforcing what we’ve already chosen to enforce. That would help with revenue. That would definitely help with safety without lowering that threshold.”

Lightfoot’s bad news budget assumes that Chicago will make $68 million in additional revenue in 2021 from “enhanced fine enforcement initiatives.”

Chief among them is the mayor’s decision to do what the City Council authorized former Mayor Rahm Emanuel to do, but the city never did.

That is, have Chicago’s 88 active speed cameras strategically positioned around schools and parks churn out $35 tickets to motorists caught driving between six and nine miles over the posted speed limit.

Earlier this week, the mayor defended that decision as imperative to “keep communities safe,” even though it contradicts her campaign promise to unwind the city’s addiction to fines and fees on the backs of low-income people.

“We’ve seen, unfortunately over the course of this year, a number of speed-related accidents and deaths go up exponentially. And we can’t ignore that reality. The hope is that, by being more aggressive in citing people for speeding around schools, around parks that we’re gonna actually lower the amount of traffic-related accidents and fatalities,” the mayor said.

“Unlike fines for non-moving violations that did fall disproportionately on Black and brown Chicagoans and drove people into bankruptcy, people have control over whether…they speed or not. The signs are very well marked. And it’s my hope that people will take this as an opportunity to check their speed because we’ can’t afford to have more people injured and more lives lost.”

Chicago has 161 speed cameras. Seventy-three of them have been “disabled” since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic because they’re positioned near shuttered schools and playlots. That leaves 88 speed cameras in operation.