From the start of 2015 when they first went live through mid-2020, the two red-light cameras at the intersection of Harlem Avenue and Cermak Road in North Riverside have brought the village roughly $13 million in revenue – an average of about $2.2 million per year — which it has used to help pay its annual police and fire pension obligation.
But the clock is ticking on that critical revenue stream, the village’s administrator revealed publicly for the first time earlier this month, and it very possibly could be lost forever.
“It’s coming,” Scarpiniti told elected officials during a meeting of the village board’s administrative committee earlier in November. “It’s just a matter of when it’s going to hit.”
The “it” Scarpiniti was referring to is a major reconfiguration of the Harlem Avenue/Cermak Road intersection that has been on the drawing board for years and which the Illinois Department of Transportation has included in its 2022-27 Highway Improvement Program.
IDOT appears poised to move forward with the project soon, according to a recent letter from the agency to North Riverside Mayor Joseph Mengoni, which was obtained by the Landmark through a Freedom of Information request.
The Sept. 17 letter included the preliminary plans and special provisions for the project along with a sentence indicating work would be starting sooner rather than later.
“Current engineering efforts are targeted to enable a contract letting in the early years of the [2022-27 Highway Improvement Program] contingent upon plan readiness and funding,” wrote Jose Rios, project engineer for IDOT Region One, which includes the Chicago area.
Scarpiniti told elected officials at their Nov. 8 administrative committee meeting that she expected the work to be scheduled for 2023 or 2024 at the latest. The village has directed its lobbyist to argue on behalf of the village to help them retain the cameras once the project is complete, said Scarpiniti.
“There is some theories out there that this is part of the governor’s attempt to rid the state of red-light cameras,” Scarpiniti told trustees on Nov. 8. “It does appear [they may be] targeting non-home rule communities versus home rule communities like Berwyn or Cicero.
“Unless we can prove the improvement they’re making isn’t enough [to make the intersection safer] and we can keep the red-light cameras, there’s a very good possibility we are going to lose them permanently.”
The Sept. 17 letter from IDOT asked Mengoni to provide comments on the plan by Oct. 15. According to Scarpiniti, the village has not yet provided that comment, a move that may be a delaying tactic as village officials figure out how to soften the blow of potentially losing revenue from the red-light cameras.
“We have asked for an extension to provide that feedback,” Scarpiniti told the Landmark in an email. “I should be preparing a response in the next few weeks.”
Documents obtained by the Landmark through its Freedom of Information request revealed that at least some village officials knew about the possible loss of the red-light cameras at Harlem and Cermak as far back as 2015, right after they were installed.
On Feb. 2, 2015, less than a month after the two cameras went live, then-Village Administrator Guy Belmonte and Village Engineer John Fitzgerald met with four IDOT officials at the Village Commons to talk about the intersection reconfiguration plan.
A written summary of that meeting, provided to the village by IDOT, outlined the scope of the project and the village’s responsibilities with respect to paying for some traffic signal improvements, in particular the ones at Harlem Avenue and 23rd Street, where there are entrances to the North Riverside Plaza and Cermak Plaza.
Those are referred to as “private benefit signals” for which IDOT has agreements with the owners of the two shopping centers to split the costs for maintenance and energy. IDOT informed the village that it no longer enters into private agreements and would require North Riverside to enter into an agreement with IDOT to share the costs for ongoing maintenance and energy costs.
The cost for replacing the signals, however, would fall solely on the village. At the time, IDOT estimated replacing the 23rd Street signals at between $375,000 and $400,000.
IDOT told the village it could seek its own agreement with the owner of the North Riverside Plaza to split future costs, an arrangement the village voiced concerns about.
The 2015 meeting summary also expressly mentions that the village’s red-light cameras would be taken down during construction “and will require reinvestigation to determine if they should be installed.”
Scarpiniti, who was the village’s finance director in 2015, said she was unaware of the meeting that February with IDOT and only learned of the potential loss of the red-light cameras in June 2020, when she was acting village administrator.
On June 10, 2020, the village received a letter from IDOT notifying North Riverside it was in the process of finalizing preliminary engineering and environmental studies for the Harlem-Cermak project.
“This will serve as a letter of intent between the village and the department confirming your concurrence with the proposed improvement plan and the cost participation responsibilities for the subject project,” the letter stated.
The June 2020 letter reiterated the scope of the work, the change in IDOT’s policy regarding private benefit signals and the removal of the red-light cameras once construction began.
The letter went a little further than the 2015 meeting summary in suggesting the red-light camera removal might be permanent.
“Given that one of the goals of the proposed improvements is to address safety issues, the [red-light] camera systems may not be needed after the project is implemented,” the June 2020 letter stated. “The village may request at the completion of the project, reinstallation of the [red-light] camera systems. If approved by the department, the village will have to follow the requirements in place at the time of the project completion.”
Hubert Hermanek Jr., who was North Riverside mayor in 2020, provided IDOT in August 2020 with a handwritten response to the project, disagreeing with its scope and proposed benefits.
“We do not support this proposed improvement as it will cause unnecessary issues with the surrounding business properties without a greater public benefit,” Hermanek wrote.
But that does not appear to have slowed IDOT in pursuing the project, which among other things would remove the triangular turn-lane islands at each corner of Harlem and Cermak, add dual left-turn lanes at all four approaches, make the intersection more handicapped-accessible and replace traffic signals with countdown signals.