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The [Wednesday] Papers

"Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration will not refund $7.7 million in red light camera tickets it collected after quietly lowering the yellow light standard, the city's transportation chief said Tuesday," the Tribune reports.

"The mayor told the Tribune earlier this month that he would consider refunds, but Chicago Department of Transportation chief Rebekah Scheinfeld made it clear that would not be happening - even though the city made a determination in September to restore the longer yellow light standard.

"These were violations of the law, they were legitimate tickets and we stand behind them," Scheinfeld said at a City Council hearing on red light cameras. "But going forward we want to make sure the situation is not distracted with continuing questions about this, and that we have full public confidence."

Stop distracting the situation with continuing questions, people. It's ruining people's confidence.


"She was responding to a question from Ald. Jason Ervin, 28th, during the Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Committee hearing in the wake of a series of Chicago Tribune investigative reports. Those stories documented alleged bribes, unexplained spikes in tickets and a $7.7 million windfall for the city this year from the 77,000 tickets issued under the yellow light change.

"The city had previously ordered its longtime camera vendor, Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., to throw out any tickets if the yellow light interval fell below the city's three-second standard, according to city Inspector General Joseph Ferguson.

"But when new vendor Xerox State & Local Traffic Solutions took over for the fired Redflex in February, the city directed the vendor to accept tickets that showed yellow light times above 2.9 seconds, Ferguson said in a recent review prompted by Tribune stories."

I wonder whose idea that was. Rahm's?

"Scheinfeld told aldermen Tuesday that the decision was based on the advice of 'professional engineers' working for CDOT but did not identify who specifically in the Emanuel administration ordered Xerox to go with the lower standard."

So Rahm.


"She repeated her previous statements that the city relied on national electrical standards that allow for deviations in the hundredths or thousandths of a second. She said the time of yellow interval for most of the tickets fell milliseconds below the 3-second threshold and were 'imperceptible to the human eye.'"

But not to your checkbook.


Let us repeat, now: Someone in a position of authority who works for the city came up with the idea to change the yellow-light standard for what must have been no other reason than to nick another hundred bucks each from 77,000 poor saps. Then someone else, or the same person, in a position of authority who works for the city approved the idea. Perhaps that someone is running for re-election.


"Don Bransford, a red light camera critic who testified at the hearing, said the extra $7.7 million 'coincidentally helped the city meet projected red light camera revenue for the year. But Scheinfeld said the decision was made by CDOT based on engineering standards 'independent . . . of the Department of Finance.'"

And, she added, it was just coincidence that those engineers had the red-light camera page of the budget placed on their desks one morning, with "FYI! ☺" in red marker written on the top.


Also, CDOT engineers suddenly figured this out independently when the city was changing over from Redflex to Xerox? The fact is that Redflex has a history of shortening yellow lights to increase revenue. It's not a new idea. In fact, it's not new to Xerox, either.

From The Newspaper on May 21, 2014:

Redflex Traffic Systems uses a special spreadsheet to calculate precisely how much profit a city can expect from red light cameras on an intersection-by-intersection basis. WTKR-TV reported about the "violation calculator" that Redflex used to provide the city of Chesapeake, Virginia with the dollar figure it could expect after signing a contract with the Australian firm.

The violation calculator is a more refined version of the criteria red light camera companies have always used. In 2001, a team of attorneys in San Diego, California used a court subpoena to obtain a copy of the confidential site evaluation performed by vendor Lockheed Martin (which now operates as Xerox). The decisions on where cameras were installed were based on finding high volume, downhill approaches where the yellow time was less than 4 seconds (view document).

Redflex promised that within ten days of signing the contract, the firm would send the city a list of the most profitable intersections based on an eight-hour video assessment of each prime location.

"Completing a detailed video analysis will ensure that Redflex and the city truly develop and implement a comprehensive 'approach strategy' that will provide the city with detailed information for accurate fact-based decisions on possible program expansion efforts," the 2009 Redflex proposal explained.

The video survey is an old fashioned method of calculating profit, however. Redflex found that it could achieve 85 percent more accurate results with its violation calculator.

"Redflex has also developed an additional analysis approach that is truly unique to Redflex," the proposal explained. "Redflex sought the guidance of a renowned professor from Texas A&M University and the development of a 'Violation Calculator' that factors in not only the quantitative violation analysis, but the engineering factors at an approach level that would also influence driver behavior."

The factors measured include the yellow duration, traffic volume, the speed limit and 85th percentile approach speed, the percentage of heavy vehicles, whether the signals have backing plates and the average duration of the green signal. The shorter the yellow time, the less visible the signal and the more deficient the engineering, the greater number of tickets will be issued, and the greater the profit for the city.

Back to the Tribune:

"I love the red light cameras," said Ald. Deb Mell, 33rd. "I think it's great."


Sorry to be distracting, Rebekah Scheinfeld, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions here. Let's turn to the Sun-Times report.

"On Tuesday, Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) appeared to be reading from a list of scripted questions as he asked transportation commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld whether refunds were justified."

FOIA that script!

In fact, it's quite common for aldermen to read from scripts prepared by the mayor's office. When people like me say that city council meetings are political theater, we mean it literally.


"Burnett then read another question: Why not just call a halt to the controversy by making all yellow lights four seconds long, as they are already are at intersections where the speed limit is 35 m.p.h. or greater or where 'unique geometric configurations' require it.

"We don't think this would solve the problem. There's always going to be some variance in the performance of a traffic signal because of that variance in the electrical current - no matter what it's programmed to be. Whether it's 3.0 seconds or 4.0 seconds," she said.

A) But why did the city shorten yellow-light times? That is still unanswered. Because the answer is: To make more money.

B) If the standard is going to be 3 seconds, shouldn't that also be the standard for violations? If I go through a yellow light that changes to red in 2.9 seconds, I shouldn't get a ticket. Simple as that.

"[City inspector general Joe Ferguson] recommended that CDOT 'restore a prior hard 3 second yellow-light threshold for violations' to ensure clarity and consistency."


"When Xerox took over earlier this year, CDOT gave the new contractor the go-ahead to accept tickets with a yellow light duration of 2.9 seconds to account for slight variations from the signal power source. That generated roughly 77,000 tickets."

Again, this was a decision the Emanuel administration made quite consciously.


Previously in Rebekah Scheinfeld:
* "One Northwestern University traffic expert who reviewed the Tribune's findings called her assertion 'nonsense.'"

* "Asked why hearing officers hired by Emanuel's administration to enforce the traffic laws are routinely throwing out the tickets if the time is allowable, Scheinfeld said the hearing officers are independent."

* "[T]he inspector general on Friday revealed that Scheinfeld's department had ordered changes early this year as the program was transitioning from Redflex to Xerox control."


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A sampling.





The Beachwood Tip Line: Have it your way.


Posted on October 29, 2014

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