Mayor Emanuel finesses speed cameras through Illinois legislature

Bill would target lead foot drivers.

November 14, 2011

It took just seven days for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his lobbying team to convince a reluctant state legislature to pass a bill allowing speed-detection cameras near hundreds of schools and parks throughout Chicago.

The quick approval marked another General Assembly victory for the mayor who moved a politically risky piece of legislation through a body that often takes months to act on delicate issues, if at all. While two other mayoral priorities remain unresolved—pension reform and casino expansion—the speed camera bill carries the potential for new revenue starting next summer, a key factor in Emanuel's aggressive pitch to get the bill passed.

Emanuel won approval from lawmakers as far south as Carbondale and from a governing body skittish about the use of electronic traffic-enforcement devices. Lawmakers expanded camera use in 2006 to catch drivers who run red lights and then faced a backlash from thousands of motorists wrongly ticketed. So some legislators now oppose their use.

“Red-light cameras were really sold to us as a safety measure, and I voted for it at that time and I regret that now,” Rep. Jack Franks (D-Woodstock) said during debate on Emanuel’s bill last week. “What we did see was, it was a huge money grab for those institutions that installed them. I do not believe this is about public safety.”

Nationally, the use of electronics for traffic citations is getting closer scrutiny. While some research shows they help reduce crashes, other studies suggest they do not improve safety, often malfunction and leave violators little recourse to fight tickets. Dozens of citizen groups have organized against them.

The zeal for the cameras grew as municipalities raked in new revenue. But the income stream has slowed for some towns as motorists have grown familiar with camera placement. The city of Naperville, for example, has taken in an estimated $1.1 million this year from its red-light camera but projected a drop to $750,000 for next year. 

Still, the city decided to take them down starting in January. Studies from Naperville’s transportation department suggested electronic monitoring was not changing accident statistics, and an ongoing road improvement project meant the cameras had to come down temporarily anyway.

Councilman Grant Wehrli, who voted against a contract extension for the camera company, said Chicago's expansion of electronic detection from red lights into speed zones "puts a bad taste in my mouth," he said. "To just blanket any municipality with speed zone cameras  borders on heavy handed and reeks of big government."

Supporters of Emanuel’s bill downplayed the extent to which the new cameras will be used. The measure authorizes them to be placed near schools and parks, which theoretically could involve hundreds of cameras, but that does not mean they will be installed at every eligible location, the mayor’s office said.

Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, Democrat of Chicago and sponsor of Emanuel’s bill in the House, drew a distinction between using cameras for speeders and for red-light violations.

“I would think talking about speed enforcement around schools and parks where children play makes the point that it really is about child safety and that is a very compelling reason to support this proposition,” she said.

Rep. Dan Brady (R-Bloomington) voted for the bill after Emanuel called him. Brady rejected the bill when it first arrived in the House executive committee. But an explanation from the mayor that Chicago children walk to school more often than in other parts of the state, and that pedestrian accidents are a serious problem convinced him to switch his position.

“My advice to any mayor who has a bill here is, yes, pick up the phone,” Brady said.

But Emanuel’s phone call to State Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago) did not change her mind. She was the only Chicago lawmaker in the House to vote against the bill.

"To just blanket any municipality with speed zone cameras borders on heavy handed and reeks of big government."

“I applaud efforts to keep kids safe, but I think this could have been more narrowly tailored,” she said. “There are other ways to slow people down. I also think about whether we want to live in a society where cameras are everywhere. At what point do we stop monitoring?"

The bill passed 32-24 last month in the Senate before being amended slightly in the House, where it passed 64-50. It now goes to Gov. Pat Quinn, who has said he will review it.

As a former congressman and White House chief of staff, Emanuel knows how to appeal to lawmakers’ varied interests. His hands-on approach contrasts with his predecessor, Mayor Richard Daley, who contacted members of the General Assembly infrequently. In the spring, Emanuel helped pass an education reform bill allowing Chicago to lengthen the school day and overhauling a facet of teacher tenure.

On the speed cameras billl, bringing the House Black Caucus on board took some finessing, lawmakers said, because their constituents tend to be more suspicious of law enforcement. And downstate representatives were reluctant because they worried the practice might subject them to constituent complaints.

"I can’t tell you how many times I get a call from a little old lady who hasn’t been to Chicago in 50 years, but she had a ticket from the city,” said Rep. Chapin Rose (R-Charleston). “This is taxation without representation.”

Emanuel’s communications director, Chris Mather, said Emanuel will introduce an ordinance in the Chicago City Council. Aldermen must authorize installation of the cameras. The bill state legislation allows cameras to begin operating after July 1, 2012.