Government

Cedar Rapids makes pitch in court to keep traffic cameras

City joins Des Moines and Muscatine in challenging Iowa DOT regulations

Speed enforcement cameras are seen installed on an overhead sign support over northbound Interstate 380 near J Avenue NE in northeast Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Speed enforcement cameras are seen installed on an overhead sign support over northbound Interstate 380 near J Avenue NE in northeast Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — The cities of Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Muscatine received no notice that the Iowa Department of Transportation planned to change its rules for how automated speed and red-light cameras were regulated, including imposing a rule requiring 1,000 feet of separation between a traffic camera and a speed limit reduction, attorneys for the cities argued in a court hearing Monday.

The cities weren’t given the chance to provide evidence countering the rules that were enacted in February 2014, which now threaten the legality of certain traffic cameras, they said during oral arguments in the case of the three cities versus the Iowa DOT at the Polk County Courthouse.

“The 1,000 foot rule — I guess in lay terms — came out of the blue for the city of Cedar Rapids,” contended Liz Jacobi, an assistant city attorney for Cedar Rapids.

Back when the program was being launched around 2010, “The city of Cedar Rapids asked the DOT about the proximity of the (traffic camera) to a reduction of speed on one end of the city and an increase in speed on another end of the city and they were expressly told the distance didn’t matter because the speed limit in question takes affect at the very point speed limit is posted.”

Cedar Rapids has the most prolific automated traffic enforcement program in the state, generating more than $3 million a year in fines for the city. It could learn in 30 days whether the city or the Iowa DOT has legal jurisdiction over the use of the cameras.

The cities of Muscatine, Cedar Rapids and Des Moines — three of six cities in Iowa with traffic cameras on state highways or interstates — sued the Iowa DOT in order to continue using traffic cameras.

The case — which considers the home rule authority of cities, safety arguments for traffic cameras and whether Iowa DOT’s traffic camera rules are logical — could have sweeping impact. The cities sued to block a March 2015 Iowa DOT rule ordering 10 camera locations around Iowa be turned off or moved. Of the four locations of speed cameras in Interstate 380 in Cedar Rapids, the Iowa DOT said two should be shut off and two should be moved closer in to the dangerous S-curve.

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At the hearing Monday, Iowa DOT attorneys acknowledged the agency initially had a hand in approving locations for the cameras, but noted the agency reserved the right to make changes. The new rules directly flowed from public feedback and, in the case of the 1,000-foot rule, new engineering research showing the short proximity would lead to more rear-end crashes, they argued.

Furthermore, the Iowa DOT argued, the cities should have been aware rules were being crafted and had the opportunity to provide comments as others did.

“The agreement is absolutely clear that DOT not only has the authority to approve locations these cities asked for; they also have the authority to unapprove them,” said David Gorham, an attorney for the Iowa DOT.

The legal arguments come as the Iowa Legislature considers adopting a traffic camera enforcement law. An effort to ban traffic cameras appears dead, but lawmakers are moving forward on bill that would allow the cameras but add regulations.

The cities had requested the hearing be postponed until after the Legislature acts, but that request was denied.

The Iowa DOT adopted administrative rules governing the use of traffic cameras in late 2013. The Iowa Legislature’s administrative rules subcommittee reviewed the rules but declined to take action at the time, and so the rules took effect in February 2014.

The Iowa DOT cited the rules, which require cities to annually justify the continued use of traffic cameras, in ordering 10 of 31 traffic camera location in Iowa be turned off or moved.

The cities appealed the decision to the Iowa DOT, but lost — prompting the cities to sue in district court.

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District Judge Scott E. Rosenberg told reporters after the hearing it likely will take 30 days or longer to pore over the 1,760-page administrative record of the case and make a decision. The decision could be appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, which could take the case or delegate it to the Court of Appeals, he said.

A few key arguments are at the heart of the case. Rosenberg said he could make a ruling based on any one of the arguments, but more likely would consider the full spectrum.

l Did the Iowa DOT violate the cities’ right to “home rule” in how they enforce traffic laws by enacting administrative rules in contrast with local ordinances?

l Was the Iowa DOT flawed in its rule-making process for the traffic cameras, particularly in requiring 1,000 feet of separation between a traffic camera and a speed limit reduction?

l Did the Iowa DOT overstep the will of the Legislature by, in effect, creating laws? The Iowa DOT contends lawmakers tacitly endorsed the rules by not taking action.

l Which data is to be used in assessing whether traffic cameras make roads safer?

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