Chicago speed cameras will continue to issue tickets for drivers going as little as 6 mph over the limit — for now — after Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s allies used a parliamentary maneuver Wednesday to delay a vote on raising the minimum for speeding citations.
The move to block a vote that would repeal a signature policy of Lightfoot brought temporary relief for her and safety advocates who have sounded the alarm on a recent spate of crashes that injured or killed pedestrians, including young children, on Chicago roads. The lower ticket threshold has also put tens of millions of dollars in fines in city coffers.
Ninth Ward Ald. Anthony Beale, who spearheaded the effort to restore the speed camera citation minimum to 10 mph over the limit, bickered with Lightfoot over whether he was allowed to appeal the move.
“You are changing the rules as you see fit,” said Beale, a frequent mayoral critic. Lightfoot merely responded the matter was “not debatable,” and the council moved on to other matters.
After the council session concluded, Beale told reporters he believed he had the support Wednesday to pass his measure — but likely not enough to overcome a veto from Lightfoot, if it came down to it. He also clarified he is not opposed to speed cameras but said the increase in ticketing is hurting Black and Latino communities the most.
“We can’t debate it. We can’t bring it to the floor,” Beale said. “That’s a dictatorship. That’s not a democracy.”
Concerns about racial inequity in how speed camera tickets are issued were among reasons cited by those who have sought to reimpose the higher minimum.
On Tuesday, the City Council’s finance committee voted 16-15 to advance the Beale’s proposal. The “yes” votes hailed from wards stretching from downtown to the Far South Side and included six allies whom the mayor has put in positions of leadership on the council.
That same day, Lightfoot was in overdrive trying to safeguard her policy. Anticipating the committee would pass Beale’s ordinance, she released a statement imploring residents directly to call their aldermen and ask them to vote no. When the committee officially shipped the plan to the full council, she then sent another statement blasting the decision and listing all 16 aldermen who voted yes by name, saying their choice was “simply unconscionable.”
Later during Wednesday’s council meeting, Beale and Ald. Raymond Lopez employed the same procedural maneuver used to delay the speed camera vote — known as defer and publish — to block all other proposals from the finance committee that followed, prompting a peeved Lightfoot to respond, “The games continue.”
Those blocked measures included money for affordable housing, Chicago Transit Authority improvements and projects in a blighted area on the Southwest Side, said a clearly frustrated Ald. Scott Waguespack, the finance committee chair. “I appreciate the behavior of my children at home more and more every day. My kids act in a much better way than some of the display that I saw here today.”
Lopez, of the 15th Ward, is among several declared candidates seeking to unseat Lightfoot next year when she’s up for reelection.
North Side Ald. Andre Vasquez, meanwhile, stood and asked to be recorded as being “thoroughly embarrassed” by Beale and Lopez and asked for them to “cease and desist.” They did not, and instead continued delaying every item that followed theirs on the Finance Committee agenda.
During a news conference after the meeting, Lightfoot said that hearing some of the comments from her opponents on the issue was like “listening to Donald Trump talk.”
“The last thing we need is to give people who are breaking the law the license to go faster,” Lightfoot said. “No one likes speed cameras. I get it. But this is life or death that we’re talking about here, and we’ve got to step up as a city and address this.”
According to city data presented during Tuesday’s committee hearing, 174 people were killed in traffic crashes in Chicago last year. That was up from 151 deaths in 2020 and 120 in 2019, though many of the deaths last year were not in areas where the speed cameras are present. That same meeting saw the mayor sending her budget director to argue keeping the stricter ticketing requirement is fiscally paramount because its repeal would leave a $45 million hole in the budget.
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 such as 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 driving 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.
The cameras are installed around parks and schools where more people on foot, 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 that it gets 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.
Amid the debate over the efficacy of the speed cameras, aldermen also introduced a rash of new legislation on safety for bicyclists following recent deaths of cyclists who were struck by cars.
More than 40 council members co-sponsored an ordinance that would allow the city to tow vehicles blocking bike lanes. The measure would also set broader warning sign requirements when certain construction blocks bike lanes. Signs telling drivers to yield to bikes would be posted 300 feet before a construction zone.
A separate measure sponsored by Ald. Brendan Reilly would let any individual submit a complaint about cars illegally parking, standing or loading in a bike lane. Complainants would be able to submit a picture or video capturing the license plate of the offender through the city’s 311 system. The change also gives traffic and parking control employees designated by the city the authority to enforce bike lane parking rules. This would give inspectors working for the buildings department and ward superintendents the power to write up violators.
Also on Wednesday, with scant discussion, the council unanimously confirmed Monique Scott to replace her brother, Michael Scott, as alderman of the 24th Ward. Monique Scott also appeared to confirm she will run to retain the seat in 2023, saying she was “sure” she will serve for the next four years.
Council members also unanimously passed legislation submitted by 19th Ward Ald. Matthew O’Shea that will provide a death benefit to spouses of Chicago first responders who died by suicide. The provisions include one year’s salary and a one-time payment ranging from $20,000 to $40,000, depending on family size.
Before the vote, O’Shea applauded the bravery of officers who wade through “unbelievable grief” during their shifts and also lamented how society has not done enough to reduce mental health stigma.
Lightfoot added when applauding the measure: “They see society at its worst every single day. The stress is real. The trauma is real.”