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Emanuel rakes in $284.9M from red-light cameras

Red-light cameras have churned out 2.2 million tickets and generated $284.9 million in fines since Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office, a revenue source the cash-strapped city simply cannot afford to relinquish, records show.

The biggest conveyor belts of those dreaded $100 tickets are the red-light cameras at Lake Shore Drive and Belmont, $8.1 million since May 2011; 4200 South Cicero, $7.46 million; Van Buren and Western, $6.3 million; and 87th and Lafayette, $5.8 million, according to records released to the Chicago Sun-Times in response to a Freedom of Information request.

Other moneymakers are at 95th and Stony Island Avenue, $4.9 million; 89th and Stony Island, $4.4 million; 79th and State, $4.1 million; 76th and Stony Island, $4.02 million; and 95th and Halsted, $3.5 million, the records show.

“Public safety, I believe, is only 25 percent of the red-light camera system. It’s 75 percent revenue-driven,” said Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee.

“But with the budget crunch we’re in now, it would be almost impossible to do away with any of them. We can’t afford to get rid of them,” Beale said. “However, the yellow light issue still needs to be addressed. We’re still waiting for the federal government to come out with standards for yellow lights so we can incorporate that standard.”

Through July 31, the city had collected $33.2 million in red-light camera revenue, a monthly take of $4.74 million a month. That’s down from $63 million and $5.25 million a month in 2014, and $72.8 million and $6 million a month in 2013, but only because the number of cameras has been reduced.

Earlier this year, Emanuel removed 50 red-light cameras at 25 Chicago intersections, where accidents have been reduced, to put out a political fire that had threatened to burn him in the April 7 runoff.

That left Chicago with 298 red-light cameras at 149 intersections — a 20 percent reduction in the nation’s largest red-light camera program installed by former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Click on a circle for information about red-light camera tickets and revenue for that intersection.

Vanquished mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia had promised to end what he called the “red light rip-off” by removing every one of Chicago’s red-light cameras on his first day in office. He never said how he would replace the money.

Millionaire businessman Willie Wilson, who got 25 percent of the black vote on Feb. 24, also made red-light cameras an issue before throwing his support to Garcia in Round 2.

“Those red-light cameras on the backs of the poor. Eliminating 50 of them was not enough. They want ‘em all gone,” Wilson said on that day.

To restore public confidence in the scandal-scarred program, Emanuel also sped up the timetable for installation of countdown clocks at 42 red-light intersections that still didn’t have them and embraced red-light camera reforms championed by a pair of influential aldermen.

After the election, the reforms sought by Beale and Tom Tunney (44th), chairman of the Economic, Capital and Technology Development Committee, were watered down.

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,” but they settled for no change.

And instead of mandating City Council approval before new red-light cameras are “removed, moved or added,” the aldermen settled for a neighborhood hearing and payment plan reforms.

The Chicago Department of Transportation also promised to 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 to determine criteria for future removal and placement of cameras.

Still, Emanuel remained committed to the program that Chicago motorists love to hate, and the records released by City Hall explain why.

At a time when Emanuel needs to find at least $754 million in new revenue to erase a 2016 budget shortfall that makes three risky and rosy assumptions, he cannot afford to kill the cash cow that red-light cameras have become.

Last month, the same circuit court judge who overturned Emanuel’s plan to save two of four city employee pension funds denied the city’s motion to throw out a class-action lawsuit challenging the red-light camera program.

The suit claims that the city did not have the authority it needed from the Illinois General Assembly before red-light cameras were installed in 2003 and it questions the timing of yellow lights.

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 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 Redflex, allowing both suspicious ticketing spikes and equipment failures that may have cost the city millions to go unnoticed.

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 had either reduced accidents or were installed at the most dangerous intersections.

Ferguson said CDOT 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 the 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 emphasized then that there had been a sea change between CDOT’s negligent oversight over Redflex and the department’s diligence in monitoring Xerox.