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Empty streets mean idle red-light cameras – and budget holes

“At this time, we are seeing a nationwide trend of fewer citations overall, driven by the lower amount of traffic on the roads,” said Neil Franz, a spokesman for Conduent State & Local Solutions Inc., the vendor that operates Chicago’s red-light cameras.

Three days after Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued his stay-at-home order, few pedestrians and minimal traffic could be seen on Clark near Hubbard.
Three days after Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued his stay-at-home order, few pedestrians and minimal traffic could be seen on Clark near Hubbard.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

SPRINGFIELD — Like many Chicagoans and other home-bound folks across the state, red-light cameras must be getting bored.

With many city and suburban streets looking like the main drag of a ghost town, the hated traffic enforcement cameras are, not surprisingly, catching fewer drivers running red lights during the coronavirus pandemic.

In Chicago, red-light violations were down 45% in March compared to the month before, according to city figures. And compared to March 2019, red-light violations in Chicago were down 54%, numbering just 19,840 in March 2020 compared to 42,812 in March 2019.

And the shutdown was only in effect for part of last month.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued his order mandating the closure of “non-essential” businesses and travel in Illinois on March 21.

A view of the intersection of North Damen Avenue and North Milwaukee Avenue on March 27, 2020.
A view of the intersection of North Damen Avenue and North Milwaukee Avenue on March 27, 2020.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times file

Comprehensive suburban data was not available. While some cities such as far west suburban Aurora have not yet seen drops similar to Chicago, many towns here and across the country are expecting a decline.

“At this time, we are seeing a nationwide trend of fewer citations overall, driven by the lower amount of traffic on the roads,” said Neil Franz, a spokesman for Conduent State & Local Solutions Inc., the vendor that operates Chicago’s red-light cameras.

What that means for the city’s budget is unknown as the revenue that trickles in from the fines levied to motorists running red lights lags, said Kristen Cabanban, a city spokeswoman.

Typically, the company that operates the cameras first has to review the photos before sending them to local officials for their own review before those officials issue citations to drivers.

A red-light camera on Chicago’s North Side.
A red-light camera on Chicago’s North Side.
Sun-Times file

The drivers often take their time to pay the fines or may contest the tickets, meaning revenue to the city’s coffers always lags behind the actual violation, Cabanban said.

“People who get a red-light ticket today may not necessarily pay it right away,” she said.

The Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative nonprofit think tank, estimated in 2017 that Chicago generated $54.4 million in revenue from red-light cameras.

“In terms of the whole city budget, it’s a small piece, there’s absolutely no question. But that translates into a healthcare clinic, that translates into enrichment programs,” said Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Chicago’s red-light camera program began in 2003, and the General Assembly approved legislation to allow them in the suburbs in 2006. While municipal officials have said the cameras are about public safety, critics of the red-lights contend they are more about generating money for local municipal budgets.

Anecdotally, some suburbs have noticed a drop in red-light camera violations.

“This information transfer takes a little bit of time, so we will likely not see the effects of the stay-at-home order and reduced traffic volume for a few weeks,” said Lake Zurich Police Chief Steve Husak.

Skokie Police Chief Tony Scarpelli said the data from violations caught by red-light cameras is not immediately available, but he is expecting a drop.

“My general impression is with less traffic on the roadways, a lesser number of violations are occurring,” Scarpelli said.

The 1500 block of North Milwaukee Avenue on March 25, 2020.
The 1500 block of North Milwaukee Avenue on March 25, 2020.
Annie Costabile/Sun-Times file

Aurora, the state’s second largest city, is seeing fewer cars on the road and fewer citations written by police officers.

But the far western suburb has only seen a slight decrease in red-light camera activity. In March, red-light camera violations number 1,707 in Aurora, compared to 1,811 in February, according to Paris Lewbel, a spokesman for the Aurora Police Department.

That’s a drop of only about 6%.

The coronavirus crisis has also tapped the brakes on the push to turn off the cameras altogether.

Besides giving headaches to lead-footed motorists, red-light cameras have led to problems for some ethically challenged politicians.

The traffic enforcement devices have become a central piece in corruption investigations in Illinois. In January, Chicago Democrat and former state Sen. Martin Sandoval pleaded guilty to corruption charges, admitting in court he accepted bribes from a person connected to a red-light camera company.

The Sun-Times has reported that federal investigators have asked suburban officials about politically connected red-light camera company SafeSpeed. SafeSpeed’s CEO Nikki Zollar has denied the company has engaged in any wrongdoing.

But the federal scrutiny added fuel to the move to eliminate the unpopular devices.

In late February, the House passed a bill to ban red-light cameras in home-rule municipalities, angering many suburban officials who rely on the revenue.

But less than a month later, the coronavirus pandemic suspended the General Assembly’s legislative session – and any action on red-light cameras or ethics legislation.