Chicago aldermen back higher minimum for speed camera tickets. Mayor Lori Lightfoot calls that ‘unconscionable’ as it heads to full council vote.

Chicago aldermen back higher minimum for speed camera tickets. Mayor Lori Lightfoot calls that ‘unconscionable’ as it heads to full council vote.
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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 some street safety advocates — suffered a significant setback Tuesday by a large bloc of aldermen who voted to roll it back.

The City Council Finance Committee voted 16-15 to advance mayoral critic 9th Ward 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. Now, the mayor is gearing up for a showdown that could lead to her first veto should the legislation pass the full council on Wednesday.

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.

Most notably, Lightfoot’s hand-picked casino committee chair, Ald. Tom Tunney of the 44th Ward, and her budget chair, 3rd Ward Ald. Pat Dowell, who is running for Congress, voted for the Beale ordinance.

Beale’s narrow victory came after two hours of discussion over the city’s surge in traffic deaths, racial inequities over the fines as well as the practicality of whether speed cameras work.

Ahead of the vote, Beale said the city’s latest argument that restoring the higher threshold for speed camera tickets would leave a $40 to $45 million hole in the budget was an attempt to “spin the narrative.”

“The majority of that money is from the backs of people who can least afford it in the Black and brown communities,” Beale said. “This entire program is again built off of corruption.”

The committee was scheduled to vote earlier in the morning on the proposal but recessed until the late afternoon. In the interim, Lightfoot had 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. “I urge members of the City Council to vote no on this dangerous ordinance.”

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.

When that didn’t work, Lightfoot issued a second statement saying the finance committee “voted to sanction higher speeds around schools and parks, when it seems that every day there is another traffic fatality because of speeding and reckless drivers. It is simply unconscionable that, after losing 173 Chicagoans to speed-related traffic fatalities in 2021, some Aldermen are acting with so little regard for public safety.”

Then she listed out all 15 aldermen who backed Beale.

The committee had debated the plan last week, but amid 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.

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Aldermen siding with Lightfoot included the 38th Ward’s Nicholas Sposato, who attributed the region’s crossing guard shortage to what he said were largely out-of-town “idiots (who) want to come through our city and drive like a bunch of maniacs and disrespect our communities.”

Meanwhile, 1st Ward Ald. Daniel La Spata evoked the pain of parents who recently lost children in the rash of city traffic fatalities when voting no on Beale’s ordinance.

“It is hard for me to justify voting on an ordinance that we know ... would result in more people being killed in traffic crashes,” La Spata said, citing city data that some aldermen challenged earlier.

On the other side, Ald. Leslie Hairston admonished her colleagues for attempting to “muddy the waters” by conflating Beale’s proposal with support for loosening up the speed limits entirely.

Hairston as well as Alds. Sue Sadlowski Garza and Sophia King all contended the tickets disproportionately harm Black and Latino Chicagoans.

Chicago transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi said a study did find those demographics bear the brunt of speed camera tickets. But she noted those are also the groups most likely to be killed in traffic crashes.

“This is a national crisis that has come home here in Chicago,” Biagi said. “Speed kills, and that’s what we’re seeing here in our city and other cities across the country.”

Deviating from the Lightfoot administration’s defense of the lower ticket standards over the past 18 months purely as a way to keep Chicagoans safer, Lightfoot sent Budget Director Susie Park to the Finance Committee Tuesday to also remind aldermen the tickets are bringing in tens of millions of dollars she said would need to be found elsewhere in order to keep up current levels of service. The ticket revenue, while considerable, is an extremely small part of Chicago’s massive overall annual budget.

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 cameras 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.

Tribune’s Gregory Pratt contributed.