Lightfoot suffers embarrassing defeat — at the expense of speeding motorists

The Finance Committee vote was 16 to 15 to raise the 6 mph threshold that has generated an avalanche of tickets and $59 million in additional revenue since Lightfoot lowered the bar in March 2021.

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Chicago City Hall

Chicago City Hall.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

An impassioned public plea from Mayor Lori Lightfoot — and days of behind-the-scenes lobbying — was not enough on Tuesday to stop a City Council committee from raising the threshold for issuing speed camera tickets in Chicago.

The Finance Committee voted 16 to 15 to raise the threshold of 6-miles-per-hour over the limit — a threshold that has generated an avalanche of tickets and $59 million in additional revenue since Lightfoot lowered the bar in March 2021.

That means motorists will no longer get $35 tickets for going between 6 mph and 10 mph above the posted speed limit. The $100 fine for traveling 11 mph or more over the limit remains in effect.

Now, the measure goes to the full council Wednesday — and because it already has been deferred and published once to delay action, there is no avoiding a final vote.

Full council approval could set the stage for the mayor’s first veto.

Her statement issued after the committee defeat certainly seemed to continue the fight, saying “I will not let City Council jeopardize public safety.”

She said the committee had “voted to sanction higher speeds around schools and parks, when it seems that every day there is another traffic fatality because of speeding and reckless drivers. It is simply unconscionable that, after losing 173 Chicagoans to speed-related traffic fatalities in 2021, some Aldermen are acting with so little regard for public safety.”

She then listed everyone who had voted in favor of the ordinance, adding: “Residents need to remember these names.”

In a statement issued before the meeting, the mayor had noted that by law, “the revenue generated from these violations is used to fund public safety efforts, infrastructure improvement and safe passage workers near parks and schools,” and that raising the threshold “would mean cutting these vital programs by nearly 45 million dollars. ... We are all responsible for protecting our children, pedestrians and bikers. It’s a matter of life and death.”

A Chicago speed camera.

A Chicago speed camera on Foster Avenue.

Stefano Esposito / Sun-Times

The votes against the mayor included six members of her council leadership team.

After a crusade against the lower threshold that has lasted more than a year, Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), one of Lightfoot’s most outspoken council critics, finally succeeded.

“This ordinance was never about reducing the speed limit. It was about righting the wrong of changing the speed threshold without a City Council vote,” Beale told his colleagues minutes before the razor-thin victory.

Beale noted the majority of revenue generated by the lower threshold has been “on the backs of those who can least afford it in Black and Brown communities.”

Last week, Beale was poised for victory when Finance Chairman Scott Waguespack (32nd) abruptly called off the roll call vote and recessed until Tuesday.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday, Waguespack gaveled the meeting open and immediately recessed again — this time, until 3 p.m. — over strenuous objections from Beale, who demanded a roll call on the motion to recess, but was ignored.

By waiting until the end of a long day of virtual committee meetings, Waguespack was giving the Lightfoot administration more time to twist arms.

When the committee finally reconvened after 3 p.m., top mayoral aides were given yet another opportunity to make their case.

Budget Director Susie Park warned that the $45 million the city would lose is enough to hire 824 police officers.

The arguments worked with some members but not enough.

Northwest Side Ald. Nick Sposato (38th) even suggested a $100 fine is “too cheap.” He urged the city to consider doubling it for drivers caught going 11 mph or more above the posted speed limit.

Sposato noted 44% of tickets generated by the 162 speed cameras installed in 69 child safety zones are issued to non-residents.

“I don’t have any sympathy for people from Park Ridge … coming through my neighborhood driving like maniacs,” Sposato said.

“They are out of control everywhere you go. We have to try to calm these people down in this crazy world.”

Black Caucus Chair Jason Ervin (28th), who has also endorsed Lightfoot’s re-election bid, said raising the ticketing threshold would “send the wrong message” to out-of-control motorists.

“We continue to see way too many people getting hit. We just had a little kid killed on 16th and Christiana here on the West Side just last week. ... And that S.O.B. didn’t have the nerve to stop to check to see if the kid was OK,” Ervin said.

“Madison [Street] has the highest traffic fatality rate outside the Central Business District. When people see that wide street, they just want to test out the accelerator. It’s costing people their lives.”

Ervin said he’s also worried about a “$45 million hit to crossing guards, to traffic infrastructure, to police and to other” programs.

“We need to start thinking about this from a fiscal impact as well,” he said.

Ald. Sophia King (4th) said she doesn’t want to “balance the budget off the backs of those who are least able to afford it.”

King, mulling a campaign for mayor against Lightfoot, added:

“I really want us to really look at real equitable and safety solutions. Honestly. I don’t see this as that. I see this as a gotcha moment.”

“We should make a concerted effort to switch to locations…that correlate with safety…In terms of equity we really need to look at that. We definitely need to look at what’s happening on DuSable [Lake Shore] Drive. It’s like the wild, wild west out there. I think we can get lots of revenue . I think we can get more revenue than we’re getting now. And I think we can make our city safer.”

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