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Transportation Thu Oct 27 2011
This morning, the Illinois Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) released the first nation-wide study on the risks associated with outsourcing automated traffic law enforcement to private, for-profit companies. While the report offers the most details on cities in California, Texas and Florida, it serves as a cautionary tale for Illinois law-makers. Illinois ranks third, only behind Florida and California, for having the greatest number of jurisdictions with such contracts. More to the point, the city of Chicago is the single largest contract-holder in the country with Redflex Traffic Systems, one of the two largest operators of automated traffic monitoring — rare is the Chicagoan who hasn't seen one of the 380 red-light cameras in the city.
Celeste Meiffren, Field Director with IL-PIRG, emphasizes that the study is intended to underscore the pitfalls many other cities have fallen into when drafting their contracts, leading to the prioritization of revenue over public safety. The report details the most glaring conflicts of interest, such as contracts that link payment to Redflex (or its competitor, American Traffic Solutions) with the number of tickets given — the more effective in ticketing motorists, the more money the company earns. This has resulted in the companies lobbying to kill measures that would increase the duration of yellow lights at intersections, which would decrease both the chance of accidents as well as potential tickets.
Meiffren explained that the deals Chicago has struck are, by and large, a "model" for how other cities should have done it. Chicago purchased the camera systems from Redflex, and the Chicago Department of Transportation operates and maintains them, without involving Redflex in the citation process. Although the city has been smart in the arrangements it has made to date, the study remains important in keeping the eyes of watchdog groups on the situation.
Current developments make this especially pertinent. Springfield lawmakers have been considering a bill that would expand privatized law enforcement in Chicago dramatically, by adding a roster of speed cameras to its already impressive holdings of red-light cameras. According to an article in the Tribune, the two versions of the bill, sponsored by Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan, would "render about 47 percent of the city eligible for speed camera surveillance." Although the language put forward by the lawmakers and Mayor Emanuel is that the new cameras are intended to "protect children" in "safety zones" near parks and schools, because of Chicago's abundance of such areas, very little of the city would be speed-camera free.
That Chicago earned $58 million from red-light camera fines in 2009 alone — "a rare bright spot in a generally bleak fiscal picture for the city" — is not to go unnoticed, and is certainly a motive for acquiring speed cameras.