The Chicago City Council voted 18-26 on Wednesday to reject an effort to roll back a law hitting drivers who zip past Chicago parks and schools monitored by speed cameras traveling between 6 mph and 9 mph above the limit with $35 tickets, a victory for Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
The vote capped months of parliamentary shenanigans and came after a concerted effort by advocates for pedestrians and bicyclists to convince undecided members of the City Council the tickets were an effective way to reduce headline-grabbing and heartbreaking crashes.
Drivers snapped traveling 10 mph over the limit have always gotten a $35 ticket, while drivers going at least 11 mph over the limit near parks and schools monitored by speed cameras installed under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel will continue to face a $100 ticket, unchanged from previous years.
The vote was a defeat for Ald. Anthony Beale (9th Ward), who has been one of Lightfoot’s most frequent critics. He has blasted the increased fines as a cash grab by the mayor, and said the cameras disproportionately target Black and Latino Chicagoans.
Lightfoot has said the city needs the $40 million to $45 million generated by the park and school speed cameras to fund vital programs, including the Chicago Police Department and afterschool programs for children and teens, while at the same time giving lead-footed drivers a financial incentive to slow down.
In 2021, traffic crashes killed 174 people in Chicago, a 15% increase as compared with 2020, according to data from the Chicago Department of Transportation.
Lightfoot called that data a “gut punch” and said it was “surreal” that the City Council was considering taking a step that would increase those deaths.
But Beale said the increased fines were designed not to keep Chicagoans safe, but to fill the city’s coffers at the expense of its poorest residents, including Black and Latino Chicagoans.
“My people cannot afford to pay these fines and fees,” Beale said. “Don't fall for the oke doke — this is not about safety.”
Nearly all progressive members of the City Council voted to keep the fines as they have been since January 2021, backing the mayor they have often been at odds with on a high-profile issue.
However, the issue split the City Council's Democratic Socialist Caucus, with Alds. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd Ward) and Carlos Ramirez Rosa (35th Ward) not casting a vote, in defiance of council rules. Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th Ward) was absent on Wednesday
Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st Ward) read the names of those killed during traffic crashes in recent months before urging his colleagues to reject Beale’s proposal
“I can't stand here in good conscience and cast a vote that would add more names to that list,” said La Spata, a member of the Socialist Caucus.
Ald. Byron Sigcho Lopez (25th Ward) voted to keep the fines unchanged, but said he was frustrated with the debate.
"Our city doesn't have the infrastructure that is required for our cars, pedestrians and drivers to coexist," said Sigcho Lopez, a member of the Socialist Caucus. "In the absence of protected bike lanes, this is one way to people safe."
The mayor’s decision to prevent a vote on Beale’s proposal last month appeared to have paid off, with Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th Ward) and Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th Ward) saying they would have voted to roll back the fines last month.
Beale said last month he had the votes.
“This is the classic Chicago way,” Beale said after the meeting.
City officials credit Chicago’s 162 speed cameras with reducing the number of severe crashes by 13% in 2021, as compared with 2020, preventing 36 people from being seriously injured or killed. But that data does not isolate changes in crash data attributable to Lightfoot’s decision to begin ticketing drivers traveling 6 mph over the limit near parks and schools with a speed camera.
After taking office, Lightfoot pushed through a series of reforms that prohibit the city from suspending driver’s licenses over unpaid parking tickets while reducing penalties and offering debt relief to the city’s poor.
Lightfoot has said Chicagoans who choose to speed should be penalized.