Brookins talks speed cameras

Ald. Howard Brookins, 21st, seen here last summer at a Wal-Mart groundbreaking in Chatham, is asking questions about the mayor's speed cameras plan. (Heather Charles / July 25, 2011)

Aldermen today asked Mayor Rahm Emanuel for information to back up his contention that speed cameras near schools and parks are about saving lives, rather than swelling city coffers.

The demand for data came as Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein briefed aldermen on speed cameras as the mayor plans to introduce an ordinance Wednesday to put the cameras near up to 1,800 schools, parks and play lots across the city.

“We’re asking for the data, so we can make an informed decision,” said Ald. James Cappleman, 46th. “Right now, we don’t have the data.”

“In the 46th Ward we have heard some residents complain and express the concern that this is more out of the desire to generate revenue,” he added. “And that’s why it’s very important that we get the facts that show that when cars travel at slower speeds, lives really are saved, that it’s not focused on generating revenue.”

Ald. John Arena, 45th, said he too has heard from residents in his ward. “They are saying don’t do this to us,” he said. “It’s overreaching. It’s a money grab. That’s what we keep hearing.”

“The data will tell me whether we should be doing this or not, and we don’t have the data to support that yet,” Arena added. “They’ve said it’s there, so it’s now on the administration’s side to give it to us and let us make an educated decision.”

If caught driving 6 to 10 mph above the limit, drivers would pay $50 fines. If they were going more than 10 mph above the limit, they would be fined $100. Red-light cameras generated $69 million for the city in 2010, and speed cameras likely would grow that amount considerably.

Although the money generated by speed camera citations will go  toward school safety and repairs to roads and bridges, Ald. Howard Brookins, 21st, said he was worried a like amount of money would then be shifted out of current spending on those items to cover unrelated city costs.

He compared it to the state lottery, which was designed to boost school spending. As lottery proceeds over the years were spent on schools, the state shifted spending from other revenue sources away from school spending.

“Is this a money grab, or is this really public safety?” Brookins asked. “It could potentially have the same effect as the lottery, where we say we are going to put it into education but then we underfund education. . . . Is this really a shell game and a money grab, or is this really about public safety?”

Aldermen also said they were concerned that the cameras as proposed would operate from 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Many said their local schools don’t have after-school programs much later than 6 p.m.

“How often are schools open beyond 5 p.m. or 6 p.m.?” Cappleman asked. “If it’s extremely rare, what’s the purpose of extending it beyond 6 p.m.”

Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law last month authorizing the cameras in Chicago, within an eight mile of schools and parks — which covers nearly half the city. The effort was pushed by Emanuel, who said repeatedly it was about the safety of children, not revenue.

“They are pushing the safety aspect of it,” said Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd, who also was briefed. “They are pushing the pedestrian plan and just slowing down speeds in general.”

Aldermen were told that signs, with speed limits and a warning that cameras could be present, would be postedacross much of the city.They could be at intersections with existing red-light cameras or on mobile platforms.

“The signage will go up around every single park and school,” said Ald. Margaret Laurino, 39th, chairman of the Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Committee that will hold hearings on the proposed speed-camera ordinance. But that doesn’t mean the cameras will necessarily be present.

Although there are thousands of locations where the speed cameras could be placed, they will start with “less than 2 percent of the eligible locations,” Brookins added.

During the first 30 days, only warning tickets would be issued. After that, drivers would get one warning ticket before getting fined.

Aldermen were told that the city needs to approve an ordinance and then go through a bid process. The speed cameras won’t be up until late this year, at the earliest, they were told.

“I don’t know that you are going to see anything before 2013,” Laurino said.

Under the law, speed cameras can be installed within one-eighth of a mile of schools and parks. A Tribune analysis found about 47 percent of the city would fall into the safety zones.

A separate Tribune analysis of a federal database of pedestrian fatalities in crashes showed that Emanuel's proposal would have a limited impact on fatalities. Of the 251 pedestrian deaths in the city between 2005 and 2009, fewer than half occurred in the "safety zones" where cameras would be located, and fewer than one-fourth of those involved speeding.

City officials said that although there are thousands of locations where the speed cameras could be placed, they will start with “less than 2 percent of the eligible locations,” Brookins said.