CEDAR RAPIDS — A Polk County District Court judge affirmed Iowa Department of Transportation orders to turn off or move several speed cameras around Iowa, including in Cedar Rapids where motorists receive more than 100,000 tickets a year and the city splits millions of dollars with a private vendor.
The 15-page ruling released on Thursday marks the first setback for traffic cameras in Iowa, where state legislators have threatened unsuccessfully to ban the technology and numerous class action lawsuits have been denied.
Around the country, cameras have been a controversial topic with cash-strapped law enforcement agencies leaning on automated traffic camera technology to combat traffic violations and patrol dangerous, hard-to-enforce roads, such as the S-curve in Cedar Rapids. They say the cameras make roads safer, while critics contend they are simply a cash cow.
In Iowa, a state versus home rule debate bubbled up as cities installed cameras over the past decade, and the Iowa DOT enacted administrative rules to regulate the cameras in February 2014 as the cameras remained unaddressed in state code.
In March 2015, the Iowa DOT ordered nine of 34 camera locations around the state be turned off, and another three moved or modified, stating they didn’t improve the safety of the highway system. After losing an appeal to the Iowa DOT director, the cities of Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Muscatine — three of six cities in Iowa with traffic cameras on state highways or interstates — sued in June 2015 to keep the cameras on.
At the heart of the case was whether the Iowa DOT had the final say over tools used on primary highways or if local cities could decide their approach to enforcement.
Judge Scott E. Rosenberg ruled on five main arguments, including whether Iowa DOT traffic camera rules were established properly, if they were logical, if the Iowa DOT overstepped the will of the Iowa Legislature, and who has the authority over camera use. Rosenberg sided with the Iowa DOT on all fronts.
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“Based on state law providing the IDOT with the authority to regulate safety on primary highways, the Iowa Legislature has provided the IDOT with the authority to regulate ATEs (automated traffic enforcement devices),” Rosenberg wrote.
Cedar Rapids, which generated $4.7 million in fiscal 2016 from traffic cameras, has the most prolific traffic camera program in the state and was most impacted by the Iowa DOT order, which called for two of the four cameras on Interstate 380 to be shut off and the other two moved closer in to the S-curve. Furthermore, the traffic camera location at First Avenue E and 10th Street SE, which has speed and red light detection, was to be modified so only a portion of the speed camera remained operational.
City officials estimated in 2015 Cedar Rapids would lose $2.2 million of the $3 million in net revenue it generated at the time if it complied with the Iowa DOT decision. An executive with GATSO USA, the vendor for Cedar Rapids’ traffic camera program, estimated it would cost $22,000 per I-380 location to remove and reinstall the cameras elsewhere, and up to $70,000 to erect a new truss to mount the cameras.
A key issue in the lawsuit was a so-called 1,000 foot rule, which was created as part of the 2014 rules and forbade speed cameras within 1,000 feet of a speed limit change because it didn’t give motorists enough time to slow down. Three locations in Cedar Rapids have been out of compliance with that rule.
The cities contended the rule was illogical because the cameras promote safety and reduce crashes and removing the cameras would make the locations less safe. The cities also called the process to create the 2014 rules flawed.
The judge sided with the Iowa DOT that the 1,000 foot rule is a “logical outgrowth” of public input meetings about the traffic cameras, and the cameras so close to speed limit changes could, in fact, increase danger.
“It is possible that ATEs will result in unfamiliar drivers braking too quickly or frequently, causing greater risk for accidents,” Rosenberg wrote.
The Iowa DOT applauded the ruling on Thursday.
“The department has always said automated enforcement is a safety countermeasure that can work effectively in certain locations, and I think this backs it up,” said Steve Gent, Iowa DOT director of traffic and safety.
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Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett said attorneys are going to review the decision before taking any action, but noted the traffic cameras remain on and enforced in Cedar Rapids.
“This is a joint effort with other cities,” Corbett said. “Each city will be reviewing and then we will decide next steps. There have been several lawsuits on the issue, not every case goes in your favor. This is the first one that hasn’t. My fear has always been the same. Speed kills, but nobody ever thinks it will be them in the accident.”
Officials in Des Moines and Muscatine did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
The question now is what happens to the cameras and the fines that have been issued since the Iowa DOT ordered the cameras off. Legal scholars have said cities risk having to repay the fines collected by leaving the cameras on after they’ve been ordered off. Rosenberg did not address reimbursement in his ruling.
Legal experts had predicted, whichever way the judge ruled, that the case would likely be appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.
Iowa DOT spokeswoman Andrea Henry noted the cities have 30 days to file an appeal, but said she didn’t know if an appeal is forthcoming. She said she doesn’t anticipate cameras being removed before the 30-day appeal window expires.
Jim Larew, an attorney who has filed several class action lawsuits calling the cameras unconstitutional, also applauded the outcome of the case.
“Our clients applaud this ruling,” Larew said in an email. “They believe that vehicle owners are being wrongfully prosecuted by cities using traffic camera equipment that the IDOT, more than two years ago, properly ordered the cities to remove.”
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