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City Watchdog Slams Management of Red-Light Camera Program

By Mike Brockway | October 10, 2014 9:14am | Updated on October 10, 2014 7:42pm
 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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CHICAGO — A newly released report from Chicago’s Inspector General’s Office slams the city’s management of its red light camera program and its oversight of the program’s former vendor, Redflex Traffic Systems.

The report, released Friday morning, is the result of an OIG investigation into a series of mysterious spikes in red light camera tickets at a handful of intersections uncovered by the Chicago Tribune this past summer. The story spotlighted 12 intersections where ticketing would jump dramatically for a short period of time, then subside just as suddenly, resulting in nearly 16,000 questionable violations.

After the Tribune story broke, members of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus wrote a letter to Inspector General Joseph Ferguson asking him to investigate these issues.

What the OIG investigation revealed was the Chicago Department of Transportation poorly managed the city’s red light camera program while Redflex was the vendor, allowing Redflex to avoid its contractual duties to report enforcement anomalies over the 11 years the company held the contract.

Redflex was banned from bidding on the new contract when an alleged bribery scandal came to light which implicated company management and a former CDOT manager who oversaw the program.

“Overall, our review revealed that the City’s management of the RLC (red light camera) program with Redflex was fundamentally deficient,” Ferguson writes in a letter addressed to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the City Council.

“The City did not ensure that Redflex was meeting all of its contractual obligations regarding routine maintenance and monitoring of the program. In addition, monthly reviews of RLC system performance by the City and Redflex failed to indentify and timely address violation count anomalies and did not examine trends in RLC violations over time,” Ferguson wrote.

Ald. Scott Waugespack (32nd), has been critical of CDOT for its lack of oversight and transparency of the RLC program and spearheaded the push for an OIG investigation.

“They [CDOT] allowed a third party to operate without oversight for years and only now have they decided to make changes to the program,” said Waguespack.

Due to a lack of documentation, investigators were not able to determine the causes of spikes at nine of the 12 intersections cited in the Tribune reports, which backed up CDOT’s claims that it only had data to explain ticketing spikes for three of the intersections.

In one case, CDOT and the OIG determined that the jump in violations reported at the camera located at 6200 N. Lincoln Avenue (Lincoln/Kimball/McCormick) were actually not anomalies at all. Faulty Redflex equipment was not accurately capturing violations at that intersection. Xerox RLC cameras are now issuing citations at volumes consistent with times of the alleged violation spikes.

In fact, the IG estimates that an additional 45,444 violations could have been issued over the past four years there, if equipment had been working properly.

Inspector General investigators did not find any evidence the city or Redflex intentionally tried to manipulate the RLC system to increase violations.

The report was also critical of CDOT for a recent change in policy that allowed new RLC vendor, Xerox State and Local Solutions, to issue violations when yellow light times were under the three-second minimum set by the federal government.

According to the OIG report, during the Redflex era, the company was instructed to reject any violations when the yellow light was less than 3 seconds. However, after Xerox took over the system in February, it was encouraged by the city to issue violations when yellow light times were as short as 2.9 seconds.

“If you weren’t doing it with Redflex why would you flip-flop and enforce at 2.9 seconds for six or seven months,” wondered Waugespack. “Who decided to make that determination to switch the threshold to 2.9 seconds? Was that a money decision or a safety decision. There’s no explanation.”

According to CDOT, in its response to the IG’s report, in 2014 it has issued approximately 77,000 red light tickets showing a yellow light time of 2.9 — which with a fine of $100 per ticket translates into $7.7 million in total fines.

The department tried to defend the decision by saying the standards set by an industry group allows for its traffic light equipment to have timing tolerances which can vary by a tenth of a second under the the 3 second federal standard.

CDOT says it instructed Xerox to suspend the practice in early September, but based on suggestions by the IG told the vendor to halt the practice altogether.

The OIG report is not all bad news. The IG believes CDOT has made progress in improving the management of the program since Xerox took full control of the system this past February.

According to CDOT, Xerox is providing twice weekly reports on each of the system’s 352 cameras and is meeting with CDOT and other city departments on a regular basis. In addition, the company has worked with CDOT to implement an “early warning” system to alert them when unusual enforcement activity is detected.

CDOT has also recently begun posting daily RLC violation totals at each location and pledges to issue an annual report on the program starting next  year.

“I’m glad CDOT is responding to the Progressive Caucus’ efforts to improve the system,” said Waguespack. “The lack of oversight in the last few years has been pretty dismal. It vindicates the questions that went into this investigation they were mocking before.”

Chicago’s red light camera program is the nation’s largest and has issued over five million tickets and raked in over a half billion dollars in revenue since the program began in 2003.