Sixty-one million dollars a year is a lot of money. That is the revenue Chicago’s red light camera program program generated in 2010. Based on reports from the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT), a proposed speed camera enforcement program being pushed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) would make the city’s red light camera program look penny ante in comparison.
The Expired Meter obtained the results of three studies conducted by CDOT over the past few years which shed light on how lucrative the speed camera business could be for Chicago. Data from these reports seem to indicate that revenue from speed cameras could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in fines for a desperate, cash-strapped city.
Emanuel is pushing legislation through the Illinois General Assembly at breakneck speed, which, if passed, would allow Chicago to utilize its red light cameras to also issue $100 speeding ticket to vehicle owners accused of exceeding the speed limit by more than 5 MPH in designated “safety zones” within an eighth of a mile of schools, parks and colleges.
As the basis for the automated speed camera program, the mayor along with Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard all pointed to a study which claimed over 25 percent of all vehicles were exceeding the speed limit at seven intersections.
Mayor Emanuel says “I hope I get no revenue from this.” CDOT chief Gabe Klein claims the goal is just to get drivers to slow down. Whether or not pedestrian safety is improved and the lives of children are saved may be unanswerable questions. However, if the data from these speed enforcement studies are to be believed, one thing that can be determined is that speed cameras will generate significant revenue for the City of Chicago.
CDOT’s Spring Speed Enforcement Study
CDOT conducted a study of seven approaches at intersections with red light cameras to document the number of cars speeding through those locations over a two month period this past spring from April 1 through May 31st.
An approach by definition is just one leg of an intersection. Most intersections have four approaches, one for each direction. Although as Chicago drivers know, the city has a handful of six-approach intersections. Typically, intersections with red light camera enforcement have at least two approaches with cameras and in rare occasions three.
The study monitored the speed of vehicles only during weekdays from 6am to 11am and then from noon until 4pm. During the nine hours per day over the course of 43 days, cameras recorded 1,418,797 vehicles passing through the seven approaches.
While the city’s report said nearly 26 percent of all vehicles were exceeding the speed limit, only 9 percent — or 131,034 vehicles — exceeded it by the 5 MPH threshold. In other words, if speed cameras were enforcing during this two-month period, 131,034 drivers would have been issued tickets totaling $13.1 million in fines.
Revenue Could Reach Hundreds Of Millions
While a hefty amount of cash, the revenue picture gets even brighter for Chicago when you apply the currently proposed hours and days of enforcement to the city’s study. The current version of the speed enforcement bill would allow Chicago to have speed camera enforcement seven days a week from 6am until midnight — 18 hours a day — not the paltry nine hours during weekdays the study covered.
Extrapolating the numbers provided in CDOT’s study, based on 48 violations per hour per approach, each camera would produce 864 violations a day or 25,920 citations and potential fines of $2.6 million for the first month. All seven cameras would produce an estimated 181,440 speeding citations or $18 million for that month.
Projecting future revenues is slightly more challenging, as estimates must take into consideration the effect of camera enforcement on driver behavior. The assumption is motorists would alter behavior with the knowledge that enforcement is occurring. Of course, after a few $100 tickets in the mail, people will learn the camera locations, brake before passing them, and violations will decrease over time — but never completely disappear.
Using CDOT’s red light camera violations in 2010 as a model, monthly totals for red light running can be seen to be dropping by an average of 5.3 percent per month for the last seven months of that year after CDOT stopped adding more cameras to the program.
Applying a regression to the mean to the projected initial numbers, the first twelve months of enforcement where fines would be issued, from just these seven locations would still produce 1,503,311 speed violations or $150 million in fines — a dollar amount that far exceeds the total revenue generated by the all 382 red light cameras every year. The numbers were discounted by 6 percent every month as violations will fall over time.
As further context, the city issued 767,603 total red light camera citations in 2010, close to half of what these the seven cameras in CDOT’s study are estimated to produce. In even broader terms, CDOT confirms 79 intersections or 158 cameras would fall within a school or park “safety zone” to qualify for speed enforcement under the current bill.
Without more traffic data at the 79 intersections in question, it would be difficult to produce an accurate estimate of what kind of revenue speed cameras could produce. But based on Chicago’s own numbers, it is safe to say hundreds of millions of dollars could be generated per year by a speed enforcement program of this magnitude.
“It’s blatantly about revenue,” said camera opponent Brian Costin. “They’re using kids to generate revenue.”
Costin, who works for the Illinois Policy Institute, helped bring down suburban Schaumburg’s red light camera program a few years ago. He believes Chicago has a questionable record when it comes to traffic safety and is worried how far the program would expand.
“I am gravely concerned when the city of Chicago says they’re doing something to improve traffic safety,” says Costin. “Their track record it horrible. You can tell it’s not really about safety when you look at the hours of operation (proposed hours of enforcement) are not during just school hours but when most people drive to maximize revenue.”
2006 Study Shows Speeding Violations Would Far Outpace red light camera Tickets
CDOT did two previous studies back in 2006 and 2008 where they found that speeding violations documented by red light cameras far exceeded red light violations. In 2006, one red light camera at the intersection of Kedzie and 79th documented speeding seven days a week, 24 hours a day for a three month period from January 10th through April 9th. Over that three month period, the camera issued 398 red light camera violations, but caught 13,995 drivers exceeding the speed limit according to the report from CDOT. That breaks down to 35 speeding violations for every one red light camera violation. This report did not break down speeding incidents by how fast the vehicle exceeded the speed limit, so it is impossible to tell how many vehicles exceeded the 5 MPH threshold to earn a $100 fine.
Another study done in 2008 monitored two Southside intersections on Western Ave. with speed cameras between September 30th and October 25, documenting speeding from 6am to 6pm. This study paints an even uglier picture as 23 percent of the 85,231 vehicles detected over the course of the study, or 19,660 of drivers were driving 5 MPH over the speed limit.
While the debate on whether a speed enforcement program will improve pedestrian safety will continue, it’s safe to say Mayor Emanuel could tap a revenue stream that could speed the city out of debt. Multiple calls and emails to CDOT for comment over the past week by The Expired Meter were not returned.
Detailed coverage of Chicago motoring issues can be found at The Expired Meter.