Government

Cedar Rapids traffic camera tickets soar in latest report

Iowa DOT ordered several location be turned off or moved

Speed enforcement cameras are seen installed on overhead sign support over northbound Interstate 380 near J Avenue NE in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday, March 18, 2015. The Iowa Department of Transportation ordered the city to cease operation of the cameras and ones located in the southbound lanes at First Avenue W as motorists have already made their way through the S-curve through downtown Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Speed enforcement cameras are seen installed on overhead sign support over northbound Interstate 380 near J Avenue NE in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday, March 18, 2015. The Iowa Department of Transportation ordered the city to cease operation of the cameras and ones located in the southbound lanes at First Avenue W as motorists have already made their way through the S-curve through downtown Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Speed cameras on Interstate 380 and elsewhere in town fired off more than 100,000 tickets, a 21 percent spike, in 2014 — the most recent reporting period, according to figures released last week by the Iowa Department of Transportation.

At least three of those camera locations have been out of compliance since a state law change in early 2014. And last spring, the Iowa DOT ordered some cameras moved or shut off.

Cedar Rapids’ busiest camera location at J Avenue on I-380 southbound issued 12,000 more tickets in 2014, up from 44,529 in 2013 to 56,650 in 2014, according to the report. An I-380 location at Diagonal Drive northbound nearly doubled its ticket count in one year from 4,218 to 8,249. And, on local roads, at the First Avenue East and 10th Street intersection, speeding and red light violation citations jumped from 1,075 to 1,948.

“Basically, the driver is approaching that intersection and within 300 feet the speed limit changes, and boom there’s a camera,” Steve Gent, Iowa DOT traffic safety director, said of the latter. “That isn’t in conformance of the rule.”

Cedar Rapids officials declined to comment Monday, citing pending litigation. Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Muscatine in one lawsuit, and Sioux City in another, contend the Iowa DOT lacks jurisdiction to dictate how cities enforce traffic laws.

The cameras remain active, however, and the Iowa DOT has said it will not take action to force the cameras off during litigation, although doesn’t condone the continued issuing of tickets.

A February 2014 administrative law change required cities with a traffic camera program to provide annual data to justify continued use. The cameras aren’t supposed to be a permanent solution, and on interstates should be used only in extenuating circumstances, the DOT said.

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After a 10-month evaluation of the 2014 data, which was submitted by six Iowa cities in May 2015, the Iowa DOT reiterated its directives from a March 2015 order that of the 31 traffic camera locations in Iowa, 21 can remain as is, seven should be turned off and three others need to be modified.

For Cedar Rapids, the speed camera portion in one direction at the First Avenue East and 10th Street intersection was again ordered turned off because the camera is too close to a speed limit change, in violation of state rules. Of the four camera locations on I-380, two were ordered moved to locations closer to the S-curve through downtown and two others were banned. The lawsuits will likely make moot the latest batch of evaluations, Gent acknowledged.

“It really doesn’t matter at this point because it is really in the court’s hands,” he said. “Whatever the evaluations say, the cities are not going to do.”

Gent said the Cedar Rapids lawsuit could go to trial in Polk County District Court this summer with a possible ruling early in 2017. The losing side may appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Legal scholars told The Gazette in 2015 the cities were gambling they wouldn’t have to repay millions of dollars in fines to motorists if they lose the case. Cedar Rapids, which generates about $3 million a year from traffic cameras and could lose about $2.2 million annually by complying with the order, continues to budget the camera revenue. Last summer, city officials froze the size of the workforce and about $1 million in new spending due to the lawsuit, but that plan was abandoned.

State rules require cities to report camera data each May. While the six cities complied, some noted they weren’t agreeing.

“The city does not acknowledge the validity of that rule as applied to Cedar Rapids, nor does it concede the report forms a valid basis for any evaluation by which the DOT purports to require changes to the city’s ATE program,” according to a cover letter for the Cedar Rapids data.

When automated traffic cameras were turned on in Cedar Rapids in 2010, the expectation was they’d change behavior. getting motorists to put on the brakes, crash less and eventually draw fewer tickets.

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The number of severe crashes has decreased slightly, but the number of tickets increased from 86,050 to 105,071 in the last two reporting years, according to public data. Gent said he couldn’t explain the increase in tickets, and noted that it couldn’t be excused by higher traffic counts, which have been climbing but only about 2 or 3 percent a year.

On the other hand, in the 41-month period before the camera program beginning in 2010, 213 crashes were recorded on I-380 including 92 with at least one driver or passenger being injured and four fatalities, according to Cedar Rapids data. In a 54-month period after the cameras were turned on through 2014, 164 crashes had been recorded, including 48 with an injury and none with a fatality.

“This data proves the city has produced a significant reduction in both the number and severity of crashes on I-380,” Cedar Rapids stated in its report.

Gent agreed the decrease in fatal and severe accidents is a positive finding, but DOT data shows overall crash numbers are flat and positive trends can’t all be attributed to the cameras. For example, the Iowa DOT has installed other countermeasures, such as high friction surface on the S curve, cable median barriers and more signage, and crashes in Iowa as a whole have been on the decline, he said.

“If the cameras were being really effective you’d say, ‘wow,’” Gent said. “The crashes would be really significantly different and we aren’t seeing that. The administrative rules are making a higher threshold of safety for interstate cameras.”

Jan Hoag, of Rochester, Minn., said she was frustrated when she received a ticket at I-380 J Avenue southbound in February because she didn’t have enough time to slow down for a speed change. Using cruise control can also complicate slowing down in time, she said.

“The upside is fewer deaths and injuries. No one would argue with that, but it would have been nice if somewhere further back there would have been a sign that the speed limit is being reduced,” she said, noting she missed the speed change warning sign.

In addition to suing the Iowa DOT, Cedar Rapids faces class action lawsuits at the federal and state level over the legality of the cameras and calling for refunds.

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Meanwhile, a federal credit reporting change has yanked the teeth out of enforcement of traffic tickets, which start at $75 apiece in Cedar Rapids. Debt collectors can still seek repayment but they can no longer report delinquent accounts to credit agencies as black marks on credit scores. Cedar Rapids’ hands are tied also because taking legal action is too costly given the value of individual fines, and Cedar Rapids spokeswoman Maria Johnson said in February the city has not pursued any other avenues for recovering unpaid tickets.

City officials hadn’t noticed a decline in unpaid tickets, she said. Approximately one in five tickets go unpaid, according to previously reported city data.

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