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Bid to raise threshold for speed camera tickets stalls, as Lightfoot and allies push off final vote for now

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CHICAGO (CBS) -- Facing a likely defeat in her bid to stop the City Council from raising the threshold for issuing speed camera tickets in Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her allies delayed a final vote on the proposal for now.

A day after the Finance Committee voted 16 to 15 to raise threshold for speed camera tickets from 6 mph over the limit to 10 mph over the limit, the City Council had been expected to cast a final vote on Wednesday.

But when the measure came up, Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) and six other aldermen moved to "defer and publish" the ordinance, pushing off a final vote until the next City Council meeting in July.

"It's on us as members of council to lead, and leading may sometimes mean doing something that is not popular. Of course, nobody wants to be caught in violation of the law, but again with all that is happening in many of our communities, I think this is not the proper step to take," Ervin said.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), who has been pushing for more than a year to raise the threshold for speed camera tickets, objected to the delay, saying his item had been deferred before, and could not be delayed again.

"You cannot, based on our laws, defer and publish twice," he said.

But Ervin said when the ordinance was deferred before, it was when the measure was being shuttled from the Rules Committee to the Finance Committee, so the latest delay was a separate matter. Lightfoot agreed, reading from a section of state law that any individual committee report can be deferred at the request of at least two aldermen.

In apparent retaliation for delaying the speed camera showdown, Beale and Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) moved to delay a final vote on virtually every other ordinance presented by the Finance Committee after the speed camera ordinance was delayed, including tax funding to repairs to several CTA stations, and bonding for a West Side affordable housing project.

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th), said he was "thoroughly embarrassed" by Beale and Lopez's actions, and asked them to stop blocking every other piece of legislation from moving forward, but they did not, other than to allow permits for charity tag sales to pass.

After Finance Committee chair Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) completed his committee report, Lightfoot called a five-minute recess, after which Beale and Lopez stopped blocking other legislation from being passed.

Wednesday's chaos puts off a final vote on Beale's bid to raise the threshold for speed camera tickets back to 10 mph until the next regular City Council meeting on July 20, unless Beale and his allies manage to arrange for a special meeting before then specifically to take up the speed camera ordinance.

Lightfoot said it's "truly unconscionable" for aldermen to consider rolling back the lower threshold for speed camera tickets.

"A few miles an hour can make the difference between life and death, quite literally," she said after the meeting. "As speed limits and speeds increase, so do fatalities."

"The truth is, and the data is that this is a crisis that needs to be addressed, because we are losing Chicagoans – it seems like every other day – needlessly, because of speeding drivers. That cannot be an acceptable status quo for anyone, and it certainly isn't for me," she added.

The lower threshold was approved by the mayor and the City Council as part of the city's 2021 budget plan, and Lightfoot has repeatedly argued it's a matter of public safety, claiming it would reduce traffic accidents and fatalities, but the CBS 2 Investigators found they've actually gone up since the 6 mph threshold went into place last year.

The city saw 142 traffic fatalities citywide – including 9 fatal accidents and 10 deaths near speed cameras – in the 12 months before the change, and 181 in the 12 months after – including 13 fatal accidents and 13 deaths near speed cameras during that time.

Beale has tried at least three previous times to force a full City Council vote, only to be defeated by the mayor and her allies.

His ordinance was introduced just weeks after the city's speed cameras began issuing tickets under the new threshold last March, but it wasn't until last week that he was able to get a public hearing on his proposal.

The ordinance would end the ticketing of drivers caught by speed cameras while driving 6 mph to 9 mph over the limit, and resume ticketing only drivers exceeding the speed limit by 10 mph or more. Those caught exceeding the speed limit by 10 mph would still receive $35 tickets, and those going 11 mph or more over the limit would still get $100 tickets.

Lightfoot and the City Council lowered the ticket speeding threshold from 10 mph down to 6 on March 1, 2021, as part of the city's 2021 budget plan. The number of speeding tickets that were issued quickly skyrocketed after the new lower threshold went into effect, resulting in tens of millions of dollars in fines last year.

Within weeks of when the new lower threshold went into effect, Beale introduced his ordinance seeking to reverse that change, but his proposal was stalled for more than a year, and at least three attempts by Beale to force a vote by the full City Council during that time failed as Lightfoot's allies successfully blocked Beale's ordinance each time.

When the measure finally came up for a Finance Committee vote on Tuesday, some of the mayor's top aides had tried to convince aldermen to keep the speed camera ticket threshold where it is, with Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi telling aldermen, "Speed kills, and that's what we're seeing here in our city and other cities across the country."  

Biagi said the city saw a 15% increase in traffic fatalities in 2021, compared to 2020, and that increase has been linked in part to speeding. She said the 174 traffic deaths in 2021 was the most in the past decade.

"People are driving fast, they're driving furious, they're driving distracted, they're driving under the influence, and they're driving without a seatbelt," Biagi said. "Anything we can do to get folks to slow down is something that we want to make sure happens in our city. It's going to save lives."

Biagi said a study by the University of Illinois at Chicago last year found that the city's speed camera program prevented 208 injury crashes over a three-year period from 2016 to 2018, a reduction of 12% compared to the years 2010 to 2012, before speed cameras were installed in Chicago. She said the study also found the number of severe crashes was reduced by 15%, meaning 36 fewer people not severely injured or killed during that time.

However, Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) noted that the UIC study didn't analyze data on how the lower 6 mph threshold would have affected traffic crash statistics in Chicago.

"We're mixing apples and oranges in trying to make the case for whether or not this actually directly correlates to what has gone on," Lopez said.

City officials told aldermen they are working to get that data, but that traffic data related to speed cameras in 2021 would also be complicated by the fact that schools were closed part of the year due to the pandemic, so many speed cameras were not operating because they're only used in active school zones.

After months of arguing the need to keep the lower threshold in place was about traffic safety, Lightfoot acknowledged earlier this week it's also about revenue, saying that returning to the 10 mph threshold would cost the city of nearly $45 million in funding for public safety programs, city infrastructure upgrades, and Safe Passage workers near schools and parks.

"Now the mayor's attempting to change her argument, because the first argument didn't work," Beale told CBS 2 earlier this week. "We know what this is. This is a huge money grab, and it sounds like now she wants to admit that this is a huge money grab, but all along it's been about public safety. So which is it?"

The fate of the ordinance remains uncertain. Although the move to delay the final vote signals Lightfoot and her allies don't have the votes to defeat Beale's ordinance, the mayor has the authority to veto the ordinance if it ultimately passes, and Beale almost certainly doesn't have the votes to override a veto.

Lightfoot has blasted the aldermen who have voted to raise the speed camera ticket threshold back to 10 mph, saying they are "acting with so little regard for public safety."

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