Chicago’s $1 million-plus speed cameras hurting low-income areas

Chicago’s $1 million-plus speed cameras hurting low-income areas

Nearly half of Chicago’s highest cash-generating speed cameras were on the South Side. Two, including the top $3.1-million camera, are hitting Ward 20 Ald. Jeanette Taylor’s low-income constituents with fines she said they can’t afford.

When Mayor Lori Lightfoot ran for office, she campaigned on the promise of reforming Chicago’s “addiction” to fines and fees that disproportionately hurt low-income residents.

But an Illinois Policy Institute investigation of Lightfoot’s new 6 mph ticketing threshold for Chicago speed cameras found the opposite. Nearly half of the city’s highest revenue-generating cameras were based on the largely impoverished South Side, including the top camera that issued $3.1 million in fines.

Chicago has 160 speed cameras but 19 of them have each generated $1 million or more in tickets. Eight are on the South Side, generating nearly 20% of the total revenue from speed cameras citywide.

Ald. Jeanette Taylor’s 20th Ward on the South Side has two of the $1 million-plus cameras, including the city’s most lucrative speed camera at $3.1 million. She said Lightfoot’s policy is squeezing the Chicago communities least able to afford it.

“I voted ‘no’ against the increase in the fines and fees. It’s just taxing the poor instead of taxing people who could actually afford it,” Taylor said.

“The median income in my community is $25,000. You’ve got poor people already struggling and the city adds more fines and fees to tickets? That shows you the priorities – and it’s not working class, poor people and majority Black communities.”

Taylor said constituents contact her about the speed cameras “all the time.” She doubts city leaders’ claims the cameras are about improving safety.

“Safety? Look how many accidents have happened in these places. How many children get hit? Not one. I get a call every day about somebody getting shot in my ward. Never have I gotten a call to say somebody got ran over.”

Instead, Taylor said Lightfoot’s lower ticketing threshold was driven by money.

“It’s about revenue. Do you notice what happens in wealthy communities? They get speed radars. We get speeding cameras,” Taylor said. “I would understand if they came to our communities and helped solve our problems, but they refuse because this gets more money out of us.”

“Our city officials are paid to protect our constituents, but that’s not what they do. That’s why Black people are leaving in droves. The people leaving Chicago decide, ‘You know what, enough is enough.’”

The analysis of Chicago Department of Finance data bears out Taylor’s concerns. The city issued $73.8 million in speed camera fines during the first 10 months of 2021, about $30 million more than it had in each of the prior three years.

Revenue spiked March 1 after Lightfoot’s policy began hitting drivers going 6 mph over the limit with a $35 ticket. Speed cameras started churning out eight times as many tickets a day.

Each camera averaged $460,976 in fines through the end of October 2021, an increase of $213,631 per camera from 2019.

Lightfoot has introduced modest reforms to ease the financial burden of city fines on low-income residents. She cut by half traffic fees for Chicagoans making less than $38,640 a year in her 2022 budget.

But speed camera tickets often cost poor Chicagoans much more, according to University of Illinois-Chicago research. Nearly half of tickets received by low-income residents incur late fees and additional penalties before they are paid. That compares to just 17% for upper-income drivers.

Late penalties drive up the cost of tickets, turning a $35 citation into an $85 fine. A $100 speeding violation can end up cost residents $244 if their payment is late.

Taylor said she didn’t need a ticket analysis to tell her what was going on – just common sense.

“If a mom of five kids who graduated from night school and got a certificate from Dawson Tech could get it, I’m sure other folks can figure it out,” Taylor said. “This is about them making money.”

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