Iowa Evaluates Traffic Camera Ban

Should the ban on traffic enforcement cameras pass, it could have side effects for Iowa cities that rely on the technology, including Cedar Rapids, which has the most robust camera program in the state.

by B.A. Morelli, The Gazette, Cedar Rapids / December 23, 2016
Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

(TNS) -- CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — A ban on traffic enforcement cameras could have side effects for Iowa cities that rely on the technology, including Cedar Rapids, which has the most robust camera program in the state.

The specter of a ban has prompted Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz to not count on the $3 million to $3.5 million in annual revenue from speed and red light cameras in the city’s fiscal 2018 general fund budget, which will be adopted by City Council in March and starts July 1, 2017.

“In order to be cautious we are going to exclude that revenue,” Pomeranz said. “The last thing we want to do is have the City Council approve a budget that is several million dollars short.”

The general fund pays for various city services and staff, such as police, fire, library, streets and garbage collection, while generating money from property taxes, which Pomeranz said won’t be increased. Total property tax revenue won’t be known for another month, so how to offset lost traffic camera revenue remains up in the air, Pomeranz said.

Budgeting is just one of the possible ripple effects should state lawmakers ban traffic cameras. Traffic safety, pending lawsuits and ticket refunds could also crop up as issues.

State Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told the Quad-City Times he expects legislation to ban traffic cameras to clear the House and Senate next month and then land on Gov. Terry Branstad’s desk. Zaun is among critics contending traffic cameras are simply a money making scam, in opposition to others who say they improve safety by calming traffic,

Safety concerns

The Cedar Rapids cameras have resulted in more than 500,000 speeding tickets being issued since 2010 — the most in the state.

Cedar Rapids and third-party vendor GATSO USA split the more than $30 million in proceeds during that time with a 2-to-1 split in favor of the city. City Council on Tuesday authorized extending the expiring contract with GATSO through Dec. 31, 2018.

Pomeranz said his biggest concern with a potential ban on traffic cameras is safety.

Cedar Rapids has seen a reduction in crashes and crash injuries and a near six-year absence of traffic fatalities on the “S-curve” on Interstate 380 through downtown where the busiest cameras have operated since 2010. A fatal collision leaving two dead and injuring two police officers last month ended the streak. The speed limit there is 55 mph.

“The main concern is the cameras slow down the traffic and the impact it would have on the safety of our officers and the traveling public if we lose the cameras,” Pomeranz said.

Pending lawsuit

Meanwhile, a traffic camera ban could make a pending lawsuit a moot point. Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Muscatine — three of the six Iowa cities with traffic cameras on state roads — joined forces to sue the Iowa Department of Transportation.

Iowa DOT had deemed three of the seven camera locations in Cedar Rapids out of compliance with administrative rules, which were adopted in February 2014 after much debate. Among the rules, cameras are required to have 1,000 feet separation from a speed limit change. Those rules also required cities to submit reports annually so Iowa DOT officials could justify continuing operation of each camera.

Following a 10-month evaluation of all 31 cameras statewide, Iowa DOT ordered seven should be turned off and three others be moved or modified, while 21 others were justified. On I-380 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa DOT ordered the city to move the southbound cameras at J Avenue, which were deemed out of compliance, and take down northbound cameras at J Avenue. The J Avenue cameras issue 90 percent of all camera tickets in Cedar Rapids. The same ruling ordered the city to move the northbound cameras near Diagonal Drive SW, which were non-compliant, and to take down the cameras near First Avenue. In town, the speed detection portion of cameras at First Avenue SE and 10th Street SE were ordered off because they violated the distance rules.

The cities appealed the order but lost, and then filed a lawsuit in district court in June 2015 contending Iowa DOT didn’t have such authority. The cameras remain in operation. Depositions notices were filed this month, and a three-day hearing is expected in February.

“It probably will be a moot point if the legislation passes, and it sounds like it has support in both chambers,” said Robert Rigg, a Drake University law professor. “If the legislature bans them, it’s a done deal, whether you are a municipality or not. The legislature has the final word.”

Andrea Henry, a spokeswoman for Iowa DOT, agreed legislation banning traffic cameras would likely end the claims in the case.

“DOT attorneys expect to have discussions regarding these matters with the cities’ attorneys in the coming weeks,” she said.

Maria Johnson, a spokeswoman for the city of Cedar Rapids, said as of now the lawsuit is proceeding as planned.

Ticket refunds?

Arthur Bonfield, a University of Iowa law professor, has said a court ruling favoring Iowa DOT could open cities to owing refunds either by a judicial order or subsequent class action lawsuits. He said at the time, the cities were taking a “gamble” they wouldn’t have to pay the money back by continuing to operate the cameras after the order by the state.

Around the country where traffic camera use has been litigated, some cities have been ordered to refund past ticket collections after losing the case or as part of a settlement, including $1.3 million in Jefferson Parish, La., and $5.6 million in St. Louis, according to news reports. Other cases have not involved a refund.

If the Iowa DOT lawsuit becomes moot, refund prospects would be dealt a blow because the issue of whether the state had the authority to order the cameras off would remain unsettled.

“It would not resolve the issue as to if they were unlawful before the legislation,” Bonfield said.

In the event a camera ban becomes law before a lawsuit ruling, motorists might still have recourse to seek a refund, but they would have to first prove the cameras shouldn’t have been operating and then make a case for compensation, he said. Because of the value of each ticket — typically $75 in Cedar Rapids — a class-action lawsuit would be the likely approach, he said.

The current version of the legislation doesn’t address past tickets and there’s no retroactive ban language, state Sen. Zaun said. As written, the legislation would take effect July 1 with the start of the next fiscal year, he said.

“There is nothing in there in regards to refunds,” Zaun said. “I am not interested in putting a city into financial hardship. I don’t know that I am interested in going back to the tickets issued years ago and paying those back. My interest is in stopping traffic cameras July 1 going forward.”

The proposed ban addresses red light, speed and mobile unit cameras operated by third-party vendors, Zaun said. The camera ban is not his top legislative priority, but it will be one of the first bills run through the Judiciary Committee, he said. The legislature convenes Jan. 9. Zaun is not interested in waiting to see how the lawsuit plays out before pushing the legislation, he said.

©2016 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.