Suburban red-light cameras are generating more revenue than ever before.
But that's not what was supposed to occur.
"They were going to be so successful at changing drivers' behaviors that they'd eventually put themselves out of business," said John Bowman, vice president of the National Motorists Association, a drivers advocacy group. "Of course, that's not what happened."
The 123 red-light cameras at 76 intersections in 32 suburbs generated more than $12 million in 2014. That's up 30 percent from 2012's $9.2 million, according to a Daily Herald analysis of municipal financial reports.
Critics say that's evidence revenue, rather than traffic safety, is the rationale for the cameras. But local police say they ticket only people who clearly are breaking the law.
The cameras are so lucrative that the revenue outpaced budget projections in most towns, with a total of $1.2 million in unanticipated income.
Lakemoor made $2.2 million from red-light cameras last year. Its addition of three cameras at routes 12 and 120 accounts for much of the overall increase in revenue across the suburbs.
Rosemont made $1.2 million from the cameras last year. Six towns each made more than $500,000 from the $100-per-violation tickets.
"People have stated they think red-light cameras are a scam," said state Sen. Dan Duffy, a Lake Barrington Republican and sponsor of a bill that recently passed the House that would ban the devices in towns without home-rule powers, like Lakemoor. "The elected officials are supposed to represent the people in these towns, but their desire for easy money and addiction to spending is taking away the voters' desires."
But local officials say the cameras are making intersections safer and the revenue is merely a secondary benefit.
"Part of the whole thing is safety, and we always hope that people are changing their habits," said Barry Krumstok, city manager of Rolling Meadows.
Rolling Meadows' red-light camera revenue increased by $219,428 in 2014 compared to 2013, according to city financial records. The $784,291 the city made last year from its seven cameras was almost $360,000 more than city officials anticipated.
"We've had construction projects in the past that took some cameras out of commission, and this was the first year all cameras were working," Krumstok said.
On average, each of Rolling Meadows' seven cameras generated more than $112,000 last year.
Across the suburbs, red-light cameras generated nearly $100,000 apiece, on average, according to the analysis.
"The game is rigged," Bowman said. "The vendors who install these cameras make money by how many people get tickets. The towns make money by giving tickets, and if you want to fight, you have to argue in front of someone the town hired."
Krumstok said the city's camera vendor, Red Speed, makes about $70,000 a month from Rolling Meadows' cameras, but that fluctuates depending on how many violations are approved by police officials.
Rolling Meadows Deputy Police Chief Mark Hogan said that as many as 50 percent of the potential violations the vendor forwards to the police department for approval are rejected.
"We're not totally without reasonable judgment," Hogan said. "If we see some that are super-slow rolling, we generally try to make a rule of thumb that if the vehicle stopped or came close enough to a stop, we'll reject it."
But Duffy said that's just lip service from the beneficiaries of the revenue.
"If it's about preventing accidents from happening, why not put up 'no turn on red' signs?" Duffy said. "They're looking to generate revenue on the backs of taxpayers."
Fox River Grove is one of the few towns with just one red-light camera. The camera at the intersection of Northwest Highway and Route 22 generated $425,569 last year from motorists turning right from Route 22 onto northbound Northwest Highway.
That's down from more than $500,000 the year before. Still, only Lakemoor's cameras averaged a higher per-camera income.
Mayor Robert Nunamaker said the camera is making drivers follow the law.
"Revenues are going down, so it must be affecting drivers' behavior," he said. "When the contract runs out, the trustees will evaluate whether we want to continue or not. Right now there are no plans to expand the program. This is it for us."
Barnet Fagel of Buffalo Grove, who runs a website called redlightdoctor.com that reviews footage of red-light camera violations for drivers, said towns are spending the money generated by red-light cameras on everything but making the intersections safer.
"Until they start putting the money toward re-engineering the intersections, the cameras aren't going to make the intersection safer," Fagel said.
Only a few suburbs have started and stopped red-light camera programs. Among them, Naperville council members said crash data didn't warrant the cameras, and Schaumburg officials worried the cameras would hurt their shopping and entertainment district.
"We didn't want people to come to Schaumburg, eat in our restaurants, shop in our stores and stay in our hotels, and then go home and two weeks later get a ticket for $100," said Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson. "We just didn't want to tick off the people who visit and shop in Schaumburg."
Larson said the village put up cameras at one intersection and then took them down less than two months later.
"We generated over a million dollars in that time," he said, "but we didn't see a noticeable increase or decrease in safety one way or the other during that time."
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