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New Report Casts Doubt on Safety Claims of City's Red Light Camera Program

By Mike Brockway | May 14, 2013 10:30am | Updated on May 14, 2013 3:46pm
 A sign warns driver of red light camera enforcement at Foster and Broadway.
A sign warns driver of red light camera enforcement at Foster and Broadway.
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The Expired Meter.com

CHICAGO — A new report on Chicago's red light camera program is critical of the management of the effort, saying the city can't explain how locations are chosen and doesn't adequately track its effectiveness.

Critics of the red light program point to the report's findings that many of the city's most dangerous intersections do not have cameras, bolstering their contention that the cameras are more about grabbing cash from motorists than safety concerns.

One alderman, a long-time critic of the red light program, said the report undermines the basis for the program's existence.

However, the report, issued Tuesday by the Chicago Inspector General's Office, said investigators could find no proof of a revenue-driven scheme.

"We found no evidence of this program being managed in a manner designed specifically to maximize revenue," states the report. "For example, there was no evidence that ticket revenue influenced camera relocation decisions."

Still, the report is highly critical of the program, which brought in some $72 million through 612,278 tickets issued in 2012.

Investigators "uncovered little evidence that the overarching program strategy, guidelines, or appropriate metrics are being used to ensure the [red light camera] program is being executed to the best benefit of the City or the general public," the report summarized.

"Specifically, we found a lack of basic recordkeeping and an alarming lack of analysis for an ongoing program that costs tens of millions of dollars a year and generates tens of millions more in revenue."

Current vendor Redflex Traffic Systems was paid more than $19 million to oversee the program, which has some 400 cameras city wide.

The inspector general's office started an audit of the city's extensive red light camera program earlier this year in response to revelations of an internal investigation by Redflex. That investigation, headed by former Inspector General David Hoffman, alleges employees for Redflex may have bribed a former city official overseeing the city's red light program.

Around the same time, six city council members asked the Chicago Inspector General to answer questions about the program, including how locations for the red light camera program were determined, if they were actually installed at intersections with the highest number of crashes or if revenue had any influence on maintaining or relocating a camera location.

The report, released by Inspector General Joseph Ferguson, says Chicago Department of Transportation management cannot provide any documentation that camera intersections were selected based on the highest number of crashes, in particular right angle crashes — the most dangerous type. 

According to the report, IG investigators "could only speculate as to the methodology used for camera installations" between 2003 and 2007.

CDOT in 2007 developed a list of the top 205 crash sites but only 73 of the city's 191 red light camera intersections are on the Top 205 list. The report contends the installations were not done in order of angle crash rates from highest to lowest.

According to the report: "CDOT was unable to substantiate its claims that the City chose to install red-light cameras at intersections with the highest angle crash rates in order to increase safety. Neither do we know, from the information provided by CDOT, why cameras in locations with no recent angle crashes have not been relocated, nor what the City’s rationale is for the continued operation of any individual camera at any individual location."

CDOT, in their response contained in the IG's report contends, "CDOT has used the most accurate and crash and traffic data ..."

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), among a handful of aldermen who've challenged CDOT for years to produce program data for review and have recently asked for city council hearings on the cameras, is shocked what little documentation CDOT has to rationalize the program.

"They have zippo, nothing, nada," said Waguespack. "We are definitely going to move forward with a hearing on the cameras. This will be the basis of our hearings. Once this report comes out, there's no denying us a hearing on this."

Ald. John Arena (45th), who initially requested hearings on the cameras, feels the IG report will allow for more productive hearings.

"Now I'm going to issue a request to move this forward," Arena said. "I'd like these as soon as possible. I'd like to hold them in the next month."

Barnet Fagel, a traffic safety expert for the National Motorists Association and a longtime foe of the cameras, called Chicago's redlight program "strictly a revenue operation."

"It was never intended to be about safety. It's just a cover, a facade. The real foundation is financial — not safety," Fagel said.

The IG report also questioned CDOT's grasp of the program's cost and sheds light on system expenditures citing some eye-opening examples.

"For example, we were surprised to find that the City was spending $13,800 in annual maintenance for cameras purchased at $24,500 each — in other words, annual maintenance expenditure equal 56 percent of the purchase price," the audit says.

The Inspector General's Office is also concerned about the new red light camera contract out for bid after current vendor Redflex was forbidden from bidding on the new contract by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

"The City is currently rebidding the contract to manage this program," states the IGO. "However, it appears to be doing this with a profoundly troubling paucity of historical data and analysis to inform a decision that purports primarily to be in the service of traffic safety."

Waguespack is demanding more than just hearings and wants Emanuel to stop the bidding process on a new contract and perhaps dismantle the system altogether. He says the mayor is only using the cameras to create revenue to prop up the city's budget.

Last year, Chicago's nearly 400 red light cameras — there can be a number of cameras at each intersection — generated close to $70 million in revenue and grossed more than $375 million for the city since the program began a decade ago.

"I'm sorry, I don't care how much revenue it generates, but we need to halt the bidding process," Waguespack says. "Not a delay, but a halt to the bidding. CDOT and OEMC will need to explain themselves. They have no evidence except to say 'it's about safety.' "

"There's no evidence whatsoever. Now we know it's all about revenue and cash and not about safety. We should start a policy discussion with the proposition they should be eliminated. There is no evidence, no logical basis for them."

Fagel agrees with Waguespak.

"The public needs to know this was a sham from the beginning like the parking meter deal," says Fagel. "In my opinion, CDOT is politically driven not safety driven."

Chicago's red light camera system is the largest in the U.S.

CDOT declined to comment but instead pointed to that department's response within the IG's report.