Iowa officials evaluating appropriateness of red-light, speed cameras

Iowa DOT seeking more data

The speed limit drops to 55 miles per hour at the Diagonal Drive exit in Cedar Rapids, where speed cameras capture viola
The speed limit drops to 55 miles per hour at the Diagonal Drive exit in Cedar Rapids, where speed cameras capture violators. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY – The state has slowed down Iowa City’s plans for red-light cameras, and other Iowa communities may also confront roadblocks to using traffic-enforcements cameras.

A divided City Council early this year OK’d the use of the cameras and expected them to be up by this fall.  But then the Iowa Department of Transportation said it wanted more traffic data on intersections marked for monitoring that include state routes, such as Burlington and Dodge streets and Highway 6.

Collecting the crash history, traffic and speed counts and other information the DOT wants may take until the spring, said John Yapp, Iowa City transportation planner. And then the city will have to await word from the DOT. So even if approval is given, the cameras could go up a year later than expected.

Other Iowa communities interested in red-light or speed cameras, and even those like Cedar Rapids with cameras already running, may face similar obstacles after the state this summer implemented written guidelines for the use of the cameras on the DOT-governed primary highway system, which includes interstate, U.S. and state highways.

One central Iowa town is even suing the DOT over the denial of its request for speed cameras.

The more rigorous state guidelines are an example that four years after the Iowa Supreme Court ruled traffic-enforcement cameras are constitutional, the technology remains controversial.

Just last spring the Iowa Legislature debated, but ultimately did not pass, a ban on traffic-enforcement cameras.

Partly because of that interest from state lawmakers and also because more cities have explored using the cameras, the DOT decided it needed a more thorough review process for applications for cameras on highways, said Tim Crouch, state traffic engineer.

The rules please one of the chief critics of the cameras, state Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale.

“There’s just a lot of problems with this (the use of the cameras), and I think it’s great the Department of Transportation said … there needs to be some guidelines here. There’s got to be some justification for installing these cameras,” he said, adding he stills supports an outright ban.

Iowa communities have always had to seek permission from the DOT to use red-light or speed cameras on highways. Cedar Rapids, for example, needed permits to install the four speed cameras it has on Interstate 380.

But before this past summer, there was no formal policy for making those decisions. The new rules appear to make getting approval harder, officials said. Of the two towns to inquire with the DOT since they took effect, one was denied and the other, Iowa City, was told to collect more data.

Communities do not need state approval to operate the cameras on locally controlled roads.

The guidelines say the cameras should be used only at locations where there is a significant crash history or the potential for crashes and should seldom be used as a long-term solution for speeding or red-light running. They also say other engineering and enforcement solutions should be implemented before communities seek cameras.

Data will be used to decide where cameras are justified. There is no minimum standard; the locations will be assessed on a case-by-case basis, Crouch said.

The first city to seek cameras under the new guidelines was Windsor Heights, a small suburb west of Des Moines. The DOT this fall denied its request for two speed cameras on Interstate 235, and the city responded by suing.

From 2005 through 2009, the Windsor Heights stretch of I-235 had the highest crash rate on the freeway, according to the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. Windsor Heights Police Chief Dennis McDaniel said data like that support the city’s request.

He also said his department has only two police officers working each shift and responding to an accident eats up manpower.

“This was a no-cost solution,” he said.

The DOT wants to try other alternatives first and will construct an auxiliary lane next year that could improve safety, Crouch said.

Windsor Heights will start using two mobile speed cameras on the interstate this month instead of the fixed-position ones it wanted. DOT permission is not needed for mobile cameras, Crouch said.

Iowa City is the only other town to have asked about installing cameras on state roads since the new guidelines were implemented this summer, Crouch said. Seven other municipalities, including Cedar Rapids, have DOT permits from before then, but they are not exempt from the policy.

The guidelines establish an annual review for all communities with active cameras. The evaluations will occur for the first time this February and must include collision data from before and after the cameras were installed and the total number of citations issued, fees assessed and collected, costs to the municipality and fees paid to any vendor.

The DOT will use the information “to assist in evaluating the continued need for such systems at each authorized location,” according to the guidelines. The DOT can require the removal of cameras.

Sgt. Mike Wallerstedt, who oversees the Cedar Rapids Police Department’s Traffic Bureau, said the city will wait and see what the DOT’s response is to its review, but he’s not too concerned. The cameras, particularly the I-380 speed cameras, are making driving in Cedar Rapids safer, he said.

“Without those cameras there I am sure that the speeds would start creeping up,” he said. “I think the cameras are what are keeping the speeds down, and certainly the crashes are down.”

Crashes in the camera zone on I-380 decreased nearly 42 percent in 2011 compared with 2010, he said.

Crouch said that while the guidelines say the cameras typically should not be used long term, if they are shown to improve driver behavior, the DOT likely won’t take them down.

“Probably as long as we see that improvement initially and then it continues at that level or slightly better, I don’t think they’ll ever be removed or asked to be removed,” he said.

Cedar Rapids also has seven red-light cameras, with two of them at intersections that include a state highway.

Cedar Rapids, like most cities using traffic-enforcement cameras, contracts with an outside vendor that runs the system. Wallerstedt said the contract with GATSO USA Inc. can be modified if something occurs outside of the city’s control, like the removal of a camera.

The revenue generated by traffic violations caught on camera is split between a city and its vendor. The state does not get a cut. In fiscal year 2012, traffic-enforcement cameras in Cedar Rapids generated $6.4 million in revenue, with $2.2 million of that going to GATSO.

In Iowa City, officials are interested in installing red-light cameras, but not speed cameras, at 11 intersections. Eight of them include state roads.

Yapp, the transportation planner, said the city has tried several measures over the years to enhance safety, including police enforcement and improving visibility and the signals.

A 2011 study of 10 of the intersections determined a few had around 100 red-light violations a day. From 2001 to 2010, there were 163 collisions caused by a vehicle running a red light, injuring 32 people but none fatally.

Those numbers did not impress some critics.

“I think it would be easier to get struck by lightning than get killed in these intersections,” City Council member Connie Champion, who opposes traffic-enforcement cameras, said at a meeting in January.The council voted 4-3 the following month in favor of an ordinance allowing the cameras. The city still would have to negotiate and vote on a contract with a vendor to run a camera system, pending the DOT’s decision.

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