Government

Cedar Rapids leaders back plan to restart traffic camera fines July 1

But first, a grace period in June would warn but not fine violators

Radar-enabled speed cameras are attached to a sign post as traffic moves along northbound Interstate 380 near the Diagonal Dr. SW exit on Friday, May 21, 2010, in Cedar Rapids. The cameras will record speeders and issue a ticket for the infraction. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Radar-enabled speed cameras are attached to a sign post as traffic moves along northbound Interstate 380 near the Diagonal Dr. SW exit on Friday, May 21, 2010, in Cedar Rapids. The cameras will record speeders and issue a ticket for the infraction. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — After being on hiatus amid court challenges, the city’s automated traffic enforcement cameras will issue warnings of speed and red-light violations for a month grace period starting June 1 and then begin issuing tickets July 1.

The plan to restart the camera program gained the blessing of the Cedar Rapids City Council at its meeting Tuesday.

Speed cameras on Interstate 380 and speed and red-light cameras in town have been off amid legal challenges since April 2017 and September 2018, respectively.

Turning them back on would make the roads safer for motorists and help police patrol the winding S-curve through downtown, police Chief Wayne Jerman said.

“This is a proven law enforcement tool and it’s been proven throughout the country,” he told the council, noting the chance of a crash resulting in injury decreases from 43 percent without the cameras to 26 percent with them.

The council voted 8-0 to approve the first vote of an amendment to the traffic camera ordinance to retool the appeals process to be consistent with state law. Two additional votes on the matter are scheduled to occur May 28. Mayor Brad Hart recused himself from the vote and discussion because the law firm where he works represents the city’s traffic camera vendor, Sensys Gatso USA, of Beverly, Mass.

The amendment would create a municipal infraction process in which the city may seek a court judgment if the recipient does not pay. Cedar Rapids no longer would enter default guilty pleas for those who ignore citations. The city began to do that to deal with the large volume of tickets that went unpaid, but the Iowa Supreme Court said it violates the law.

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Under the revision, a recipient has 30 days of the notification to either pay the ticket, file a written challenge or request a municipal infraction be filed. If a judge determines the recipient is liable, the city could seek voluntary payment; could submit the debt to the state’s income offset program, in which the state could settle the debt through a violator’s income tax refund; and could seek the assistance of a collection agency.

The police department has the authority to reactivate the camera program without council approval, but several council members spoke in favor of it anyway.

“This is not a moneymaker,” council member Scott Olson said. “All people have to do is drive 11 mph above the speed limit or less.”

Registered owners of vehicles traveling at 12 mph or greater above the speed limit face a $75 fine, or more for greater speeds, and a $100 fine for running red lights. Those going through the municipal infraction process also would face court fees.

No plans exist to change the number of automated cameras or fines, Jerman said.

A few common complaints are not addressed in the ordinance revision, including that tickets are assigned to the vehicle owner — meaning people who aren’t driving could get fined — and that the cameras capture only rear license plates, leaving semis exempt in effect.

The cameras are at four locations on I-380: northbound near Diagonal Drive SW and at J Avenue NE, and southbound near J Avenue NE and First Avenue W. In town, a public safety spokesman said they also are at First Avenue and 10th Street E; Williams Boulevard and 16th Avenue SW; First Avenue and L Street SW; Edgewood Road and 42nd Street NE and Center Point Road and the Collins Road north ramp.

The program, which initially was approved by the City Council in 2009, has faced intense scrutiny over the years from the public, lawyers, legislators and Iowa Department of Transportation officials that at least some of the cameras are more about growing revenue than improving public safety.

Council members questioned some of the largest concerns.

Marty Hoeger asked about improving signage to better announce the camera zones to drivers and providing more transparency about how revenue is used.

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Jerman noted that staff requested the Iowa DOT, which controls road signs, replace existing signs with larger and brighter ones and add signs to better alert motorists, but have not heard back. Also, the proceeds — estimated at $4.7 million in fiscal 2020 — are for adding 10 officers and an administrator to process appeals.

Jerman vowed to make public annual reports on speeds and collisions and severity of collisions through the department’s website and performance report.

Olson questioned how police would respond if the Legislature acts to ban the cameras or scoop up much of the revenue.

The city is accustomed to adjusting budgets based on legislative actions, Jerman said, so would decide how to respond at that time but would not cut the new police hires.

• Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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