Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is making a public appeal to save one of her signature policies — ticketing drivers caught by automated speed cameras going as little as 6 mph over the limit.
That practice — unpopular with many drivers but welcomed by many safety advocates — appeared to suffer a setback Tuesday by aldermen who want to roll it back.
The City Council Finance Committee was scheduled to vote in the morning on mayoral critic Ald. Anthony Beale’s proposal to reset the speed camera ticket and raise the ticket threshold to 10 mph over the speed limit, as it used to be.
The meeting was recessed till the afternoon, but before aldermen even reconvened, Lightfoot sent out a statement acknowledging Beale’s ordinance could pass out of committee and imploring council members to reject the change.
“The Committee on Finance is poised to allow increased speeds near schools and parks citywide,” Lightfoot wrote in a statement. “I urge members of the City Council to vote no on this dangerous ordinance, which is being pushed by Aldermen Beale, (Ed) Burke, and (Raymond) Lopez.”
The mayor added that there has been an increase in fatal traffic crashes over the past two years and warned passage of Beale’s proposal would mean cutting programs in public safety, infrastructure and safe passage workers by almost $45 million.
“It is unconscionable that any City Council member would consider voting to allow for increased speeds near spaces utilized by our children,” Lightfoot said. “… I urge all residents to call their alderman and tell them to vote no. We are all responsible for protecting our children, pedestrians, and bikers. It’s a matter of life and death — people need to slow down.”
The committee debated the plan last week, but amid lots of sharp criticism of the Lightfoot standards, committee Chair Ald. Scott Waguespack recessed the proceedings, without a vote, until Tuesday. That led supporters of the Beale ordinance to contend Waguespack was buying the mayor time to line up votes to defeat it.
Lightfoot lowered the speeding ticket minimum as part of her 2021 budget, arguing it would make city streets safer and saying she did not do it to raise more money. Though she campaigned on a pledge to end Chicago’s “addiction” to fines and fees, the mayor said safety-related issues like speeding deserve tougher enforcement.
Nonetheless, the new standards have proven lucrative and drawn loud rebukes from Beale and others who contend the mayor is trying to balance Chicago’s books on the backs of poor and working class residents who can ill afford the new $35 tickets each time they get busted.
The city sent out over 1.6 million of the $35 speed camera tickets in 2021, even though Lightfoot’s new rules didn’t take effect until March. Just in the first two months, the city issued $11 million in fines for those caught going 6 to 10 mph over, a Tribune investigation found. Nearly 900,000 warnings were also sent out to drivers caught going 6 to 9 mph too fast in the month before the lower threshold started.
Drivers are also charged $35 if the cameras catch them going 10 mph over the limit, and $100 tickets go out to those caught 11 or more mph too fast. Mayor Rahm Emanuel put those guidelines in place for the speed cameras in safety zones around parks and schools, and Beale’s ordinance would revert to them.
It would be rare for Lightfoot to see such a key initiative reversed, but aldermen are up for reelection early next year — as is the mayor herself — and this vote puts them in a tough spot.
The camera are installed around parks and schools where more walkers, bike riders and children are likely to be. And while pedestrian and bicycle safety organizations tend to support the 6 mph ticket minimum on the grounds they get motorists to slow down, many Chicago drivers resent yet another example of the city nickel-and-diming them and aldermen complain the cameras often aren’t really very close to schools or parks.
Lightfoot included the change within her massive 2021 budget package, so aldermen did not have to vote on it specifically then. Now they are being forced to choose sides on a divisive issue not long before many of them face voters.
If Finance passes the Beale ordinance Tuesday, the full City Council would be slated to consider it Wednesday.
Lopez is among several challengers seeking to unseat Lightfoot next year. Burke, the council’s longest-serving alderman, is awaiting trial on federal corruption charges.