Mayor Rahm Emanuel took a “small step” by tripling the “grace period” before slapping motorists who blow through red lights with $100 tickets, but the change does not go nearly far enough, an influential alderman said Tuesday.
Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, was equally unimpressed with Emanuel’s decision to remove red-light cameras from six existing intersections and place them at five new locations where a new study shows red-light cameras would have a greater impact on safety.
What Beale wants is what he demanded two years ago, but didn’t get as Emanuel tried to put out a political fire that had threatened to burn him in Chicago’s first mayoral runoff.
“We still haven’t seen a federal study on the yellow [light duration],” Beale said.
That “is what we really were pushing — to have some national standards for the yellow. And to have countdown [clocks] at every one of those intersections,” Beale said.
“They’re trying to put the countdown at each one of those intersections. But it’s not totally done yet. The countdown is key to reducing crashes at these intersections,” he said. “It’s not the yellow. It’s not the red. It’s gonna be that countdown that allows people to understand whether I have enough time to slow down, or do I need to speed up just a little bit to get through the intersection without getting a ticket?”
Earlier this week, City Hall agreed to give red-light runners more time to get through intersections, to deal with what officials called the “dilemma zone” of hesitation and indecision.
Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Mike Claffey maintained that Emanuel has already delivered on his 2015 promise to install pedestrian countdown timers at all red-light camera intersections.
When red-light cameras are relocated, all of the new intersections will also have countdown timers before tickets are issued, he said. Four of the five new intersections already do, Claffey said.
Last year, the city issued 586,415 red-light tickets — and about 29 percent of those went to motorists who entered the intersection between one-tenths and three-tenths of a second after the light had turned red.
By tripling the “grace period” to three-tenths of a second — as suggested by the Northwestern University Traffic Center — the city is likely to issue 29 percent fewer tickets, according to city Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld.
That could cost the city $17 million in annual revenue from red-light camera tickets.
At Northwestern’s suggestion, Scheinfeld said the city also has agreed to begin the process of removing red-light cameras at: 95th and Stony Island; 71st and Western; Pershing Road and Western Avenue; Grand and Oak Park avenues; Irving Park Road and Kedzie, and Peterson and Pulaski.
Those intersections have two cameras each. Eight of those cameras would then be moved to four intersections: Lake and Wacker; Michigan and Jackson; Grand and Dearborn, and Pershing Road and Martin Luther King Drive. The remaining four cameras would be moved to the area where Central, Foster, Northwest Highway and Milwaukee come together.
Although the city stands to lose big money with fewer tickets, Beale was unimpressed.
“Is that gonna have a big difference as far as the amount of tickets? I don’t think so,” Beale said. “It’s a small step in the right direction. But it’s not getting us where we need to be.”
Beale said he is “not at all” satisfied and won’t be until the city “abides by the national standard” for the duration of yellow lights and installs countdown clocks at all 151 red-light camera intersections.
“That will help tremendously as far as the amount of accidents and red-light violations in the city,” he said.
Earlier this week, Scheinfeld stood her ground on the timing of yellow lights.
“The length of the yellow times, we think, is appropriate for the conditions in Chicago,” she said. “There is a conversation at the national level about timings for yellow signals that we continue to follow. And if the guidance nationally changes, we’ll be taking that into consideration.”
Emanuel inherited the nation’s largest red-light camera program and has had nothing but headaches from it.
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.
In 2014, 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 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.