Turn them off, tear them down: Red-light cameras are Chicago politics at its worst

Carelessness, callousness and corruption: All three of these trademarks of Chicago City Hall have been on display since the start of the city’s red-light-camera system in 2003. Chicago’s system is the nation’s largest, filling government coffers with more than half a billion dollars since its inception.

On Aug. 20, the former CEO of the company that installed and operated the red-light cameras from 2003 to 2013 – Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. – pleaded guilty to orchestrating a $2-million bribery scheme in exchange for a Chicago city contract.

John Bills, the city official charged with taking bribes from Redflex, will stand trial on federal corruption charges in January 2016.

After the Chicago Tribune began running reports on the improper relationship between Bills and Redflex in fall 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired Redflex. The company stopped managing the city’s red-light cameras at the end of 2013.

The system should have been dismantled then and there.

In 2013, an audit from the city’s Office of Inspector General found it “troubling” that the Chicago Department of Transportation couldn’t produce evidence that any analysis was conducted in choosing the locations of the more than 300 cameras.

“The City is currently rebidding the contract to manage this program,” the report reads. “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.”

Indeed, with no evidence that the program increased safety on Chicago streets, the city signed a five-year, $44-million contract with Xerox Corp. to manage the cameras.

This is Chicago politics: a mix of misinformed policies and sophisticated graft.

Today, the Redflex cameras operated by Xerox continue to frustrate drivers. On July 30, a Cook County judge refused to grant a request from the city of Chicago to toss out a class-action lawsuit challenging the program. This isn’t the first class-action lawsuit brought against the city for its use of the cameras, and the results of the last were disturbing.

As the Tribune points out, a similar lawsuit “was dismissed by the Illinois Supreme Court last November because of lack of a quorum, an extremely rare occurrence. Two justices — including Ann Burke, the wife of powerful Chicago Ald. Ed Burke, 14th — recused themselves for unspecified reasons.”

While Emanuel has removed dozens of the cameras in the last two years, and even made some encouraging reforms to the program in the run-up to the 2015 gubernatorial elections, taxpayers deserve better.

There is no justification for the cameras the city can now provide to undo the gross mismanagement and millions of dollars in improper fines levied on honest Chicagoans under this system. It must be scrapped. And the burden to take down these cameras one by one should not fall on the victims.

The city should stop issuing tickets from red-light cameras and consider implementing proven reforms within the traffic infrastructure that already exists. Lengthening yellow-light intervals and “all-red” times are two fixes that deserve serious attention.

Scrambling to assemble safety data to justify camera locations while the city continues to hit up drivers with tickets is Chicago politics as usual. City leaders should respect their constituents by scrapping the program and starting anew.

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