2019 LEGISLATIVE SESSION

Competing bills on traffic cameras back again

In 2018, lawmakers couldn't decide: ban or regulate?

Traffic flows Nov. 20, 2018, under automated traffic cameras on Interstate 380 northbound near J Avenue NE as seen in an aerial photograph. These speed cameras have not been issuing tickets since 2017. Once again, Iowa lawmakers will consider bills this session that could determine the fate of speed and red-light cameras statewide. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Traffic flows Nov. 20, 2018, under automated traffic cameras on Interstate 380 northbound near J Avenue NE as seen in an aerial photograph. These speed cameras have not been issuing tickets since 2017. Once again, Iowa lawmakers will consider bills this session that could determine the fate of speed and red-light cameras statewide. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — There’s an old — and frequently used — saying around the Capitol that no bill is truly dead until the Iowa Legislature adjourns sine die.

And even then, some legislation lives on.

A year ago, the news from the Legislature was that competing bills affecting the future of traffic cameras in Iowa were racing to the House floor.

But nothing happened.

This year, bills again are on their way to the House and Senate floors as lawmakers seek either to ban or to regulate the automated traffic enforcement devices used to catch speeders and red-light runners.

Cedar Rapids has four traffic camera locations on Interstate 380, which had been generating 90 percent of the tickets in the city’s traffic camera program but have been off since April 2017. Three in-town locations — which have speed and red-light enforcement — remain active, except the westbound-facing cameras at First Avenue and 10th Street E. The other locations are at Williams Boulevard and 16th Street SW and First Avenue and L Street.

Police Chief Wayne Jerman last year urged that the I-380 cameras be turned back on, saying revenues would be used to hire 10 new officers. City officials, however, pumped the brakes on a plan that was being readied for City Council approval and have not indicated when they will move forward.

House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Ashley Hinson, R-Marion, is taking another run this year at regulating traffic cameras to make sure they are being used to enhance safety, not just generate revenue.

Her plan, House Study Bill 36, would allow cities and counties to operate the cameras in school zones, construction zones and other high-risk areas.

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Last year, the House rejected an outright ban, on a 43-55 vote. and approved her approach, 77-21. But the Senate didn’t take up the measure.

“I’m not interested in regulation,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, said about Hinson’s approach.

His push for a ban on traffic cameras last year stalled, but he believes it will have more support this year as a result of the 2018 election.

“I’m confident we will have more votes based on the election and conversations I’ve had with members,” Zaun said. However, once again, “the House is where the challenge is.”

Although one of the chief opponents of traffic cameras, Rep. Jake Highfill, R-Johnston, was not re-elected, there’s still House support for a ban.

“We’ll start with a ban, but I think there’s room for a compromise,” Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota, said about legislation he plans to run through the Public Safety Committee he chairs.

“We still need to address this and it’s better to have a broader conversation and see where it leads,” Klein said.

Banning traffic cameras “isn’t my No. 1 priority this year,” Zaun said, but he’s not interested in compromising, in “weakening the bill.”

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However, he’s willing to make a small concession to cities by delaying the implementation of a ban “so it doesn’t hit cities after they certify their budgets” in March.

By putting it off a year, he said, cities could plan for the loss of camera-generated revenue.

Klein may take a different approach to make traffic cameras more palatable — not for Cedar Rapids and the other cities that want to use them, but for the people ticketed for speeding and running red lights.

“A big issue is that the people paying the fines don’t share in the benefits,” he said.

By benefits he doesn’t mean safer streets and highways, but the revenue generated by fines.

Before Cedar Rapids turned off its interstate speed cameras during a court case in 2017, the camera program had been generating more than $3 million annually for the city and $2 million for the Massachusetts firm that supplied the devices.

Sharing the proceeds might address what Klein said drivers see as the “gotcha” nature of the cameras.

Hinson doubts that will fly with the cities that have the cameras.

Cedar Rapids, she said, has indicated it will use revenue from the cameras when they are turned on again to hire the additional officers.

She believes public safety is an appropriate use of the camera revenue. Scooping up that money to share with the state or other communities would leave the city in the lurch, Hinson said.

In previous debates, some opponents raised personal liberty concerns, arguing the cameras deprive motorists of their due process rights.

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Others argue the Iowa Constitution gives cities home-rule authority to decide how to enforce speed limits in their boundaries.

“I think the pulse is that people think a regulatory framework is needed,” Hinson said. “If that doesn’t work, then we can look at a ban.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

B.A. Morelli of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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