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Old October 26th, 2011
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Exclamation Speed cameras could blanket nearly half of Chicago

chicagotribune.com

Speed cameras could blanket nearly half of Chicago

Emanuel gets legislative backing on plan to flag fast drivers for $100 tickets

By Bob Secter, Kristen Mack and Max Rust, Tribune reporters

10:43 PM CDT, October 25, 2011

Nearly half the city would fall into so-called safety zones where speed cameras sought by Mayor Rahm Emanuel could flag fast drivers for $100 tickets, according to a Tribune analysis of camera legislation in Springfield.

Emanuel has framed his plan in narrow terms, pitching it as a way to leverage technology to better protect children near schools and parks. But bills introduced at the mayor's behest and being weighed this week by lawmakers would give him authority to use automated devices to nab speeders across a broad swath of city streets.

The measures, one sponsored by Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, and the other by House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, would render about 47 percent of the city eligible for speed camera surveillance, the analysis found. As originally introduced last week, Madigan's bill would have covered about 75 percent of the city, but he promised Tuesday to scale it back.

Even the 47 percent coverage projection is likely conservative. The newspaper analysis, using the bills as guides, measured the extent of camera-eligible zones surrounding parks and schools but did not include zones that would also be created around colleges and universities.

What's more, the Tribune's calculation includes the massive O'Hare International Airport and Lake Calumet regions, even though they have few publicly accessible roads eliminating them would make the percentage higher. On the flip side, the calculation includes Lake Shore Drive and Chicago expressways, even though lawmakers say speed cameras would not be allowed there.

The powerful House and Senate leaders appear to be working in step with Emanuel on the issue, meaning their different versions of the legislation are growing ever more similar.

Madigan agreed at a committee hearing to match his proposal with Cullerton's, allowing speed cameras in "safety zones" within one-eighth mile of the property line of a school, college or Park District facility in Chicago. He also agreed to insert the ban on speed cameras for the expressways and Lake Shore Drive.

Because the city is honeycombed with hundreds of such education and recreational areas, the practical impact would be overlapping safety zones reaching broadly across the city.

Emanuel administration officials acknowledged as much Tuesday, citing estimates of safety-zone sprawl similar to that of the Tribune.

"The first priority is to affix (speed detectors) on existing cameras" at 79 intersections near schools and parks, said Emanuel spokeswoman Chris Mather. "If and when we need more to protect children around schools and parks will be determined" by accident data the city collects.

As things stand now, slight but potentially significant differences still remain between the Cullerton and Madigan measures. The Senate bill, as approved in committee Monday, does not include any time restrictions.

But Madigan, saying he was responding to complaints aired by Republicans on that Senate panel, said he would revise his bill to restrict camera use to between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. around schools. Near parks, speed cameras could be flicked on one hour before the park opens and stay on until one hour after it closes, Madigan said.

Chicago is a national leader in red-light cameras, with nearly 200 around the city, and it would become the largest U.S. city to add speed detection to its arsenal of automated traffic enforcement if either of the measures becomes law.

Traffic cameras have become a controversy magnet wherever they have been installed, with advocates praising them as a smart way to promote responsible driving and deter accidents, while critics dismiss them as a high-tech version of the old speed trap.

Emanuel's push for speed cameras has stoked the conflict anew, with the mayor proclaiming the safety of children is his overarching motivation. That said, revenue from red-light camera fines $58 million in 2009 has been a rare bright spot in a generally bleak fiscal picture for the city. Speed cameras could prove even more lucrative.

Aides to Emanuel said no decision has been made on which of many camera vendors to hire for the speed program. But they do say the city's current red-light cameras can be quickly upgraded to catch speeders, adding that vans with detection equipment also can be floated among "hot spots."

All of which could prove a boon for Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., the exclusive vendor for city camera equipment since the red-light program began here in 2003. Since then, city records show, Redflex has been paid more than $76 million.

In its 2011 annual report to investors released last month, Redflex proclaimed itself the industry leader in both beating down legislative attempts to curtail traffic cameras as well as gaining approval to enter new markets.

State records show Redflex has hired the influential lobbying firm of Fletcher, O'Brien, Kasper and Nottage, P.C., to push its interests in Springfield. One of the firm's named members, attorney Michael Kasper, is the general counsel and treasurer of the state Democratic Party that Madigan runs. Kasper was also hired by Emanuel to beat back several residency challenges that threatened his mayoral run.

Redflex launched the city's red light program under former Mayor Richard Daley, a move undertaken eight years ago without specific authority from the state. Since then, however, lawmakers have explicitly given the green light to the cameras in both the city and suburbs, while also specifically banning the use of speed cameras in Illinois.

An effort to overturn that statewide ban was solidly defeated in the state Senate in 2009. One twist to the calculus this time is that both the Madigan and Cullerton bills would confine authorization for speed cameras to Chicago, continuing the ban for the suburbs, where red-light cameras have proliferated despite considerable resentment among voters.

Gov. Pat Quinn nodded to swirling skepticism about traffic cameras Tuesday even as he said he was reserving judgment on the Chicago legislation.

"I think it's important to have due process for everybody," Quinn said. "If something is being done as more revenue generator as anything else, I think we should examine it very carefully."

Tribune reporters Ray Long and Monique Garcia contributed.
Copyright 2011, Chicago Tribune
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