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Red Light Tickets Rake In Millions For Suburbs And Politically Connected Companies

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Brett McNeil said he received two red light camera tickets in July 2016.

He paid one of them, but thought the other was illegitimate.

“I thought we stopped,” he said.

McNeil said he was making a right-hand turn at a red light at Harlem Avenue and Lake Street in west suburban River Forest. He contested the ticket but was charged another $100 during an adjudication hearing.

Since his hearing, McNeil and Bob Uphues have been breaking down the numbers behind red light camera systems across Chicago’s western suburbs for the Wednesday Journal.

In particular, they found that a four-mile stretch of Harlem Avenue -- from North Avenue to Cermak Road -- is likely one of the most lucrative stretches in the state, issuing more than $26.5 million in red light camera citations between January 2014 and October 2016.

That stretch of Harlem Avenue passes through River Forest, Forest Park, North Riverside and Berwyn, and many of the red light cameras are operated by a Chicago-based company called SafeSpeed, LLC, McNeil reported.

McNeil is a former reporter with the Chicago Tribune and he joined Morning Shift to discuss his findings. Below are highlights from that interview.

On how contesting his ticket in River Forest landed him in what he calls a ‘kangaroo court’

Brett McNeil: In another piece of reporting I showed that less than 10 percent of the people who seek an adjudication hearing are cleared of [their red light ticket charges]. So to bother to show up is basically to have a 90 percent chance of being rung up for another $100 ticket.

There are very, very few people who contest [these tickets] that are ever found to be not guilty of having made this right hand turn.

On how much money is being generating on a four-mile stretch of Harlem Avenue

McNeil: We reported that there were $26.5 million in tickets issued on a four-mile stretch of Harlem in less than three years.

Most of that money is going to North Riverside and Berwyn, which are neck and neck. That intersection (Harlem and Cermak), we describe it as a citation supernova. More than $20.7 million between January 2014 and the end of October of 2016.

On how that revenue compares to the red light camera revenue in Chicago

McNeil: [Of] two of the cameras at that Cermak and Harlem intersection [in Berwyn], one is averaging more than $3.5 million in citations a year. The other is almost $2.5 million. There isn’t a camera in the entire city of Chicago that comes close to those kinds of numbers.

On where the red-light camera money is being used

McNeil: Sixty percent of it is retained by the municipalities. Forty percent of it is going to a private company based in Chicago [called SafeSpeed, LLC].

At the municipal level, towns are using it for different purposes. North Riverside is using it basically to fund unfunded pension obligations for their police and fire [departments]. Berwyn we don’t know. Berwyn didn’t answer any questions. River Forest is using the money for infrastructure.

And then 40 percent is going to a politically-connected private business that operates on Wacker Drive.

On the response to his reporting

McNeil: What’s the official response been? Total silence. And I think that’s maybe an important point to make here. We’ve heard nothing from elected officials in these towns. And we’re ignored after sending written request for comment.

On the citizen side, I guess I would say let’s see. This isn’t a municipal election year, I don’t think, in any of the affected towns. I don’t know if this is a grass-roots political movement afoot, but perhaps. I didn’t get involved in this to launch a political career or to encourage some sort of political movement at the municipal level, but I do think this is an issue that resonates.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the 'play' button to listen to the entire interview. 

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