116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Questions about fairness of some speed camera locations on Interstate 380 were raised by officials from Cedar Rapids and its camera vendor before the loved or loathed automated traffic enforcement program ever launched.
But concerns were rebuffed by the Iowa Department of Transportation, according to documents released in response to an open records request.
Earlier this year, the DOT told Cedar Rapids three camera locations, including two on Interstate 380, violate Iowa DOT rules enacted in February requiring at least 1,000 feet between cameras and speed changes. The cameras are at Diagonal Drive SW, J Avenue and, in town, at the intersection of First Avenue E and 10th Street E.
Disgruntled motorists are suing Cedar Rapids and the vendor, Beverly, Mass.-based Gatso USA.
'Now after five years of operating in the manner IDOT told us to operate they change the rules and tell the city they're not in compliance,' Gatso co-founder and chief technical officer Rich Kosina wrote in an Aug. 28 email to Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman. 'This is not being fair to the city.'
'We are the ones that came up and said, especially the one at the south end, the speed limit changes are too close to the cameras,' recalled former Police Chief Greg Graham, 'How difficult is it to just move the signs back?'
Kosina said he told Steve Wilson, a former traffic technician for Iowa DOT's district 6 office, in 2009 that cameras at northbound and southbound J Avenue on I-380 north of the S-curve were too close to speed limit changes. Wilson retired in 2010.
'The example I used was in the NB (northbound) direction as a driver approached the truss at J Ave. while in the 55 mph zone the driver could already see the 60 mph sign ahead,' Kosina wrote. 'I explained I felt this was not fair to drivers, and since the truss could not easily be moved, would IDOT consider moving the 60 mph sign further away.
'I still remember Mr. Wilson's words, 'I don't care if they can see the sign, they're not allowed to (be) doing 60 mph until they get to that sign,'' Kosina wrote. 'He refused to move the sign.'
Wilson said in a Dec. 8 email he doesn't recall the specific conversation, but he worked closely with the Iowa DOT Office of Traffic and Safety in Ames on the location requirements, and moving the speed limit signs was not an option.
'The IDOT concern was that the cameras be located so as not to create 'speed traps,'' Wilson wrote in an email. 'The cameras were to be located far enough into a speed zone so that motorists could adjust their speed ...
The IDOT position was that we would not modify speed zone areas to accommodate camera locations."
Standoff over location
Despite concerns, the J Avenue cameras have recorded more than two-thirds of the 400,000-plus tickets worth more than $21 million since the system launched in 2010. Gatso, which earns $25 per ticket, has received more than $5 million.
The DOT enacted a series of administrative rules, including the 1,000-foot rule, in February to standardize use of the attractive-yet-controversial technology for the state. The rules state camera programs should be last resorts for traffic control and should not be used as long-term solutions, and require an annual report to justify continued operation.
But without legislation over camera programs in Iowa Code, the DOT's rules are being tested. The DOT has oversight over Iowa's primary road system, but local municipalities handle enforcement.
Sioux City is suing the DOT, claiming the rules on placement of cameras are difficult if not impossible to meet.
Cedar Rapids has not sued the state, but the city and DOT remain in a standoff over camera locations. Cedar Rapids says the DOT should grandfather in the non-compliant camera locations — northbound at Diagonal Drive, southbound at J Avenue and in the city at the intersection of First Avenue and 10th Street — or move the speed signs.
The DOT has said it will not move the signs.
The DOT hopes to make recommendations about all six cameras programs in Iowa, including Cedar Rapids and Sioux City, by the end of the year.
The contested camera locations also are one pillar of a federal class action lawsuit. Motorists argue the cameras violate their due process and equal protection rights, as well as state administrative rules. All tickets are still being enforced, although the lawsuit asks for two years of refunds.
Wilson Avenue cameras proposed
The emails obtained by The Gazette show some of the decision making behind the camera locations.
Kosina told Jerman, who was hired in 2012, that he preferred a southbound camera just north of Wilson Avenue to monitor the south part of the S-curve.
A speed change is located just south of Wilson Avenue, and Cedar Rapids and Gatso wanted the DOT to move the speed sign.
'Again Mr. Wilson refused to move that sign and made us place the cameras on the First Avenue truss knowing full well this placement would put the last curve of the roadway outside of the monitored zone,' Kosina wrote, adding Iowa DOT headquarters also reviewed and approved construction plans.
Kosina declined The Gazette's follow-up questions through his attorney, citing pending litigation. There was no response email from Jerman included in the documents, and he was unavailable to participate in an interview.
Graham, who resigned as police chief in 2012, said Wilson Avenue was a more ideal location because it had less of a curve than First Avenue.
'We just wanted a wider view that would capture the traffic through the entire curve,' Graham said. 'Remember that the system has the ability to monitor speed through the curves as well as speed at the camera location. The farther away they are, the better data you get.'
Graham said before the camera program, the city and DOT had been discussing the dangerous S-curve, which had been averaging two fatalities per year. The DOT said the design of the road was fine, and Cedar Rapids needed to step up enforcement, Graham said.
Graham pointed out the dangers of enforcement on I-380, so the DOT offered to help put up a camera system, he said.
Not moving speed signs
Steve Gent, Iowa DOT director of traffic and safety, said the state was still learning how to deal with cameras systems when Cedar Rapids launched its program. With an absence of laws governing use, the goal was to let the city choose the locations for its program, he said.
However, speed signs are placed at designated locations, and the state was not going to move them for a private business and a city to run a traffic camera program, he said.
'If a speed change is in the wrong spot that would be a reason to move it, but if we move it because we want to put speed cameras here, the public would be outraged, and they should be,' Gent said.
Gent questioned the Wilson Avenue location because, at that point, motorists are at the tail end of the S-curve heading out of town and it didn't appear to address safety, he said.
The First Avenue cameras, which are mounted above the sharpest curve on I-380, by far record the fewest tickets and generate the least revenue of the I-380 cameras. That location has issued 1,234 in 2013 compared to 44,529 at the J Avenue southbound location.
Cedar Rapids has said it prefers not to move the cameras, but the city requested information about the option, according to a Sept. 12 email from Kosina to Sgt. Michael Wallerstedt, of Cedar Rapids police, and Andrew Noble of Gatso.
Kosina estimated it would cost $22,000 per I-380 location to remove and reinstall the cameras elsewhere, and up to $70,000 for to erect a new truss to mount the cameras.