NMA Reboot: The Pot Accuses the Kettle

This weekly post features recent news stories that highlight and update themes previously covered throughout NMA E-Newsletters and Alerts.

Editor’s Note: In a bizarre turn of events the City of Chicago has filed a $300 million lawsuit against its former red-light camera contractor Redflex for bribing city officials to land the city’s camera contract. The city claims Redflex promised it had not bribed city officials and that the city has suffered financial damages from Redflex’s false statements. It takes chutzpah for one bad actor, the City of Chicago, to blame another bad actor, Redflex, for the misbehavior of its own employees. Shouldn’t the city bear some responsibility for the actions of its officials? Given the way Chicago’s red-light camera program has been run, this lack of accountability is not surprising. For more details about how unaccountable the program has been, check out this newsletter from 2013.


NMA E-Newsletter #227: The True Red-Light Camera Violation

Already bruised by an ongoing bribery scandal, the City of Chicago’s red-light camera program took another body blow recently, thanks to the city’s own Office of Inspector General (IGO).

The IGO conducted an audit of the Chicago’s red-light program to “determine if red-light camera installations were made based on the Chicago Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) stated primary criterion of reducing angle crashes to increase safety.”

The audit sought to answer nine specific questions posed by members of the Chicago City Council, including the following:

  • Has the City installed, and is the City installing, red-light cameras in locations with the highest number of angle crashes?
  • Has the City used, and is the City using accurate data in determining the location for red-light cameras?
  • Is CDOT following its own prioritization steps for red-light camera relocations?
  • Which City departments, consultants, and/or employees of Redflex are involved in the decision to install or relocate red-light cameras, and how?
  • What is the total cost of the camera system, including installation and annual maintenance?

The findings, or lack thereof, are stunning. In its cover letter to Mayor Emanuel and other city officials summarizing the results, the IGO states the following:

Our audit’s findings can be summarized in two simple points.

First, CDOT was unable to substantiate its claims that the City chose to install red-light cameras at intersections with the highest angle crash rates in order to increase safety. Neither do we know, from the information provided by CDOT, why cameras in locations with no recent angle crashes have not been relocated, nor what the City’s rationale is for the continued operation of any individual camera at any individual location.

Second, our audit uncovered little evidence that the overarching program strategy, guidelines, or appropriate metrics are being used to ensure the RLC program is being executed to the best benefit of the City or the general public. Specifically, we found a lack of basic recordkeeping and an alarming lack of analysis for an ongoing program that costs tens of millions of dollars a year and generates tens of millions more in revenue.

That pretty much says it all, but there are some gems contained in the body of the report:

The IGO could not determine if field evaluations for potential RLC installations were done in accordance with appropriate traffic engineering standards to ensure that signal timing is set properly.

The IGO requested the traffic engineering standards used by CDOT and any documentation to show that RLC installations and signal timing were completed in accordance with the standards. CDOT did provide the IGO with the standards but did not provide any documentation supporting that signal timing is set to the required minimum standards or regularly monitored for adherence to those standards.

Other than the site survey provided by Redflex, CDOT management said they were not aware of any involvement by other City departments, consultants or other individuals in the decision process of where to install cameras. 

The report also reveals that Chicago has paid Redflex more than $100 million over the life of the program, yet it can’t document costs associated with the purchase, maintenance, repair or miscellaneous fees for any camera location or specific camera.

The IGO dug deeper and did manage to determine that the city’s annual maintenance cost is $13,800 per camera—56 percent of the cost to purchase a brand new camera. That’s like buying a new $30,000 car and then agreeing to spend another $15,000 a year to maintain it. Eight years later (that’s how long Chicago has had cameras), you could have paid for a new car four times over, but you’re still driving an eight-year-old car.

It defies logic.

But every red-light camera program conceived defies logic. Until you realize that the stated goal of such schemes (public safety) is not the true goal (money). Then it starts to click. The game is rigged, and the cheaters protect the game through their disdain for transparency and accountability coupled with their pervasive indifference to the public good.

This is the true red-light camera violation; we shouldn’t shrug it off by saying, “Oh well, it’s Chicago. What did you expect?” We expect, and deserve, better from those we entrust with our public safety and our precious resources.

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