Iowa Lawmakers see red light ahead for traffic cameras

Some cite mass collection effort in Cedar Rapids as 'overreach'

Traffic travels past speed cameras northbound on Interstate 380 at J Avenue in Cedar Rapids. While the cameras still monitor speeds, they do not issue speeding tickets while the city and other local governments await word from the Iowa Supreme Court on an appeal. Justices are considering the appeal that would allow continued use of speed cameras in Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Muscatine. A lower court had ruled that the Iowa Department of Transportation had authority to order several cameras off. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Traffic travels past speed cameras northbound on Interstate 380 at J Avenue in Cedar Rapids. While the cameras still monitor speeds, they do not issue speeding tickets while the city and other local governments await word from the Iowa Supreme Court on an appeal. Justices are considering the appeal that would allow continued use of speed cameras in Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Muscatine. A lower court had ruled that the Iowa Department of Transportation had authority to order several cameras off. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — The issue of banning automated traffic enforcement cameras is back in the legislative fast lane at the Iowa Statehouse.

Rep. Jake Highfill, R-Johnston, chairman of the House Local Government Committee, and Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said they plan to run bills calling for camera bans and believe they have their best shot of passage after years of legislative frustration.

“One of our top priorities is to ban speed cameras,” said Highfill, who noted the House previously passed a ban, but the issue has stalled en route to the governor’s desk in the past. “We’re coming back this year, regroup and try to get the votes again. I believe we have the votes all the way through. Hopefully we can it done.”

Former Gov. Terry Branstad favored a ban, but his successor, Gov. Kim Reynolds, is monitoring the situation before committing.

“The governor generally supports limitations on automated traffic enforcement cameras but has not seen any legislation on the matter,” said spokeswoman Brenna Smith. “The governor would wait to comment until she sees any bill to ban automated traffic enforcement cameras in its final form.”

Zaun led an effort to ban traffic cameras last session. A bipartisan group of senators wanted instead to keep the devices in place but subject them to stricter regulations in hopes of curbing some of the concerns that have been associated with the 79 cameras that were then operating statewide in eight cities and one county. The effort to regulate rather than eliminate the cameras, however, failed to win House approval.

Now, Zaun said, developments during the interim in Cedar Rapids have caused several senators to rethink their positions. Zaun said legislators took note of a decision by the City Council last fall to authorize an enforcement crackdown in association with a collection agency.

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If violators didn’t pay, those tickets plus a 25 percent late penalty were to be turned over to the state offset program, which draws from gambling winnings, tax returns and other income funneled through state coffers to pay the debt.

Days before Christmas, Cedar Rapids mailed out 221,000 notices seeking payment for $17.3 million worth of unpaid tickets, some from 2010 when the speed and red light cameras were first activated.

Separately, a Gazette analysis of speed and crash data in October — six months after cameras were turned off from issuing tickets — revealed that while speeding increased by 15 percent, crashes did not, and may have declined.

Some drivers reported the travel on Interstate 380 felt safer because people weren’t slamming on their brakes when approaching the cameras.

Iowa Department of Transportation data showed a decline in crashes — from 27 to 14 — and a drop of crash-related injuries from 10 to one from 2016 when the cameras were active to 2017 to when they weren’t. Cedar Rapids data conflicted, showing 18 crashes in 2016 and 17 to that point in 2017.

“Personally, I’ve changed my opinion,” said Sen. Tim Kapucian, R-Keystone, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “I don’t like what I’ve been seeing with some of the moves to try and collect the fees. There was an effort to have the state try to collect the fees, which I think was above and beyond, and then an out-of-state firm has been hired to actually do the collection.”

Kapucian said he also thought the crash data in Cedar Rapids undermined the city’s public safety argument for keeping the cameras.

Sen. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, who helped craft compromise legislation (Senate File 220) to keep in place systems that promote safety and protect law officers in dangerous enforcement situations, said he is having “open and fair” discussions with Zaun about ways to keep the cameras operating in some form in high-risk traffic areas through more regulation, more regard for people’s rights and changes affecting the revenue flow. But he conceded it may be difficult to head off a ban.

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Zumbach said he has safety concerns about I-380 in downtown Cedar Rapids “because I’ve traveled it; I’ve driven trucks on it; I’ve driven cars on it; I’ve seen the accidents on it; and I really do believe that those cameras slowed folks down and created a safer environment.”

He said the Cedar Rapids data covered such a short amount of time that “it’s very difficult to use that as accurate information.” But he agreed the state should not “be the tax collector” for localities seeking to recoup unpaid fines.

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, who will run the bill in a House Local Government subcommittee, said he has the support of both the sheriffs of Cedar and Muscatine counties in his district and has heard from many legislators and citizens who view the stepped-up collection as “a clear overreach.”

Rep. Gary Carlson, R-Muscatine, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, had S.F. 220 referred to subcommittee Wednesday to keep it eligible for consideration by his full committee. He also expects to deal with the topic as a member of the House Local Government Committee.

“I would say that there’s a high likelihood that the issue could come before lawmakers this session because there’s energy on both sides of the debate,” he said.

l Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

B.A. Morelli of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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