CITY HALL — The commissioner in charge of the city's red-light cameras insisted they were trustworthy Tuesday, even as the inspector general said the system "historically" had been prone to "deficient management."
Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld and Inspector General Joseph Ferguson testified before the City Council's Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Tuesday in what Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) called an attempt to "restore public confidence in the Red Light Camera Violation System," in his resolution requesting the hearing.
Ferguson called it "a matter obviously of great public interest and concern."
Ferguson said the system had been "historically" prone to "deficient management," especially under the original vendor, Redflex, which was fired from that position last year.
"There is a then and there is a now," Ferguson added, saying the city had never monitored available data on violations under Redflex, but was now vigilant on violations under the new vendor, Xerox.
"The past management of the program was insufficient," Scheinfeld acknowledged.
Ferguson said that "spikes" in citations, and those issued with yellow lights of under three seconds, had resulted in "eroding the public trust in the system." Yet Ferguson said he found no evidence the city had deliberately altered the timing of yellow lights.
And Ferguson said "spikes" in violations that were issued at certain intersections, uncovered in an investigation by the Tribune, were actually because the cameras were "malfunctioning" much of the time, so that the huge increase in tickets issued came when the cameras were operating properly.
"The spikes did not result in the improper issuance of tickets," Scheinfeld said. "People were breaking the law."
Scheinfeld insisted the city had not altered any yellow lights and that the variations were due to normal "fluctuations in the electrical current," which resulted in yellow lights that went from 2.9 to 3.1 seconds, a range permissible under federal standards.
Scheinfeld added that most fluctuations were in the hundredths if not thousandths of seconds, but that Redflex had typically thrown out tickets with yellow lights under three seconds. Xerox, however, issued tickets this year under those same circumstances, until public outrage resulted in the city telling Xerox to throw out any tickets with yellows under three seconds, starting in September.
Scheinfeld also blamed traffic sensors beneath the pavement for malfunctioning and making the system erratic. She called that "outdated technology ... not well-suited to Chicago," and said Xerox had replaced those sensors with radar.
"People are getting upset about this stuff," said Ald. Emma Mitts (37th). "Are the cameras working right or are they not working right?"
"How can anyone really believe in the red-light-camera system?" Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) said.
Scheinfeld defended the cameras as "a critical tool in helping to save lives," citing data that showed intersections with the cameras had 47 percent fewer right-angle crashes, 22 percent fewer crashes resulting in an injury or fatality and 23 percent fewer accidents involving pedestrians.
Barnet Fagel, who has made a vocation out of helping motorists fight camera tickets, dismissed that data, saying those figures reflected a general nationwide trend toward fewer traffic accidents whether or not intersections have cameras.
"I've timed hundreds of intersections in the city, and 99 percent of the time they come up short" on yellow lights, Fagel said afterward. He called the hearing "a whitewash."
Ferguson testified that, under Scheinfeld, who replaced Gabe Klein as commissioner this year, the Transportation Department "appeared to be taking steps to improve its management." Citing his own report on red-light cameras, he added that he was "encouraged by CDOT's response to our review."
"We fully support his recommendations for improvements," Scheinfeld said, "and we have committed to further improvement."
Scheinfeld added: "We're looking at every camera at every intersection on a daily basis."
Burnett, the committee chairman, said it appeared all parties were working "very good together."
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said the hearing was "many years coming" and cheered Ferguson for testifying to council members on his reports, which Ferguson said no inspector general had done in 25 years.
Waguespack added that, given the cameras produce $50-$60 million a year in revenue, that money should be directly devoted to improving safety at intersections designated to be dangerous, and not just put into the city budget.
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