Hearings To Put Red Light Cameras Under The Microscope
RLC Program Has Produced $375 Million In Revenue Since 2003
Chicago’s red light camera program will soon be facing more scrutiny and this time it’s from Chicago’s City Council.
At last Wednesday’s monthly City Council meeting, Aldermen John Arena (45th), Bob Fioretti (2nd) and Scott Waguespack (32nd) introduced a resolution calling for hearings questioning whether red light cameras are being installed to improve safety or to maximize revenue for the city. A total of 24 aldermen signed onto the resolution.
Chicago’s red light camera program is the nation’s largest with 384 cameras at 191 intersections, generating tens of millions of dollars in revenue every year.
While the program is entering its 10th year, it’s faced little scrutiny or oversight since it’s inception in 2003. When the program was started and then expanded under former Mayor Richard Daley, there was little if any opposition.
But the recent revelations that the city’s RLC vendor, Redflex Traffic Systems, had routinely provided free hotel accommodations and tickets to sporting events to the former Chicago Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner in charge of the program, have energized alderman to get some answers.
Alderman Arena, who penned the resolution says the recent move by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to block Redflex from bidding on the RLC and speed camera contracts was instrumental in moving him to hold hearings.
“It’s a pretty aggressive move for Chicago,” said Arena of what Mayor Emanuel did. “In that regard I’ll compliment the Mayor. But what are we going to do going forward? We want the hearings to assuage the fears of citizens who feel that it’s all about revenue.”
“I don’t think I had much trust in the red light camera program to begin with, but when we saw CDOT employees caught in a corrupt scandal to benefit from the program, we said let’s go back and have a full blown hearing on every aspect of the program,” said Waugespack. “We want a complete hearing on what’s been going on with this program and the data that’s gone into determining what intersections get cameras.”
Waguespack explained he, Arena, Fioretti and a handful of other aldermen over the years have had questions regarding the process that goes into determining where cameras are installed, whether intersections are selected to improve safety or bring in the most revenue, what happens to the hundreds of millions of dollars generated by the program and if any of it used to improve safety on Chicago’s streets?
“For years we’ve asked at budget hearings ‘what have you done with a fairly large amount of of money to improve intersections?’ and you kind of get the runaround,” said Waguespack. “Where and how has this revenue been utilized–specifically? Specifically, how many dollars are going into pedestrian timers, crosswalk markings, and other traffic safety improvements.”
Arena, while not necessarily against the use of red light cameras, does not believe it should be the only tool to improve safety on city streets.
“I do not believe in the silver bullet mentality–there’s never just one solution to a problem,” said Arena. “Is the only answer a red light camera? We have an arsenal of tools to work with. We can’t be myopic about the solutions available to us. Has a traffic engineer looked at an intersection and says something else besides an RLC would be more effective?”
Brian Costin, of the nonpartisan, pro-free market Illinois Policy Institute also believes asking questions is a great idea. Costin, after reading many of the research studies trying to gauge the effectiveness of red light cameras, is skeptical they improve safety. Some research studies show the cameras improve safety while just as many others show the cameras have little or no effect.
Costin actually questions the underlying premise of the cameras.
“Hearings would be a good thing,” said Costin. “But you need to ask about the root premises about red light camera enforcement. Are the fines we are collecting from citizens worth the safety benefits? I would say the studies are inconclusive at best. We need to have a meaningful conversation on whether we should have red light cameras at all.”
The city’s RLC program has been a consistent revenue producer having generated close to $70 million dollars for the last three years and a whopping $375 million over from 2003 through 2012 according to new data provided by the Department of Finance.
According to city budgets every penny of revenue generated by this program goes into the city’s general fund, without being specifically earmarked for traffic safety or even general transportation spending.
“That’s always been bothersome,” said Waguespack.
Further fueling questions regarding RLC site selection is eye brow raising revenue data on the city’s top ten money producing intersections in the city.
These intersections include 99th & Halsted, Belmont & Kedzie, Lake Shore Drive & Belmont, Kostner & North, Hollywood & Sheridan, California & Diversey, 87th & Vincennes, Van Buren & Western, Peterson & Western and Cortland & Ashland.
Just through 2011, these ten intersections collectively generated over $58 million since 2003. These intersections, while representing only 5% of the city’s total RLC locations brought in 19% of the program’s total revenue.
The resolution has been assigned to the Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Both Arena and Waguespack hopes to have hearings in April or May but are awaiting independent audits from the Mayor’s Office and the Inspector General’s Office on these issues.