Government

Key traffic camera vote scheduled for Tuesday in Cedar Rapids

Traffic flows under the automated traffic cameras on I-380 northbound near J Avenue NE as seen in an aerial photograph in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Traffic flows under the automated traffic cameras on I-380 northbound near J Avenue NE as seen in an aerial photograph in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The City Council on Tuesday is scheduled to consider an amendment that would open the door for the return of automated traffic camera ticketing for speeding and running red lights, which police say helps with traffic enforcement and makes roads safer.

The changes would revise the traffic camera ordinance and create a new means for contesting tickets in accordance with an Iowa Supreme Court ruling last year.

The cameras on Interstate 380 — near J Avenue NE and Diagonal Drive SW on I-380 north and near J Avenue NE and First Avenue W on I-380 south — and one location in town — First Avenue E and 10th Street — have not been ticketing since a Polk County District Court ruling in April 2017.

The Iowa Supreme Court reversed the ruling in April 2018, but Cedar Rapids held off turning the cameras back on as the Iowa Legislature debated regulating or banning the cameras. The Legislature took no action.

The rest of the cameras in town — Williams Boulevard and 16th Avenue SW, and First Avenue W and L Street W — have been off since August 2018 because of an Iowa Supreme Court ruling in a separate case.

Under the plan being presented to City Council during its meeting at noon Tuesday at City Hall, 101 First St. SE, Cedar Rapids no longer would enter default guilty pleas for those who ignore citation notices. The city had begun doing this to deal with the large volume of tickets that went unpaid, but the Iowa Supreme Court said that violates the law.

Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart, who has championed the return of the cameras, said last week he would not be voting because he has a conflict of interest. The law firm where he works, Bradley & Riley, represents Cedar Rapids’ traffic camera vendor, Sensys Gatso USA, of Beverly, Mass., in litigation and contract negotiations with the city.

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If the measure passes Tuesday, which it is expected to do, the City Council would need to vote on it again, likely on May 28, to formally adopt the changes. City and police officials have said there would be a grace period of two weeks to a month before tickets would be enforced, likely putting the beginning of enforcement sometime in June.

The City Council first approved traffic cameras in 2009 with the hope of improving safety on I-380 on downtown’s S-curve, where police have difficulty patrolling for logistical and safety reasons. The expectation was that over time, motorists’ behavior would change, leading to fewer tickets. However, the number of tickets issued grew.

Police say data shows the cameras have reduced crashes and serious injury.

The Iowa Department of Transportation says the data makes no such case and there’s little evidence the cameras are making a difference. The Iowa DOT noted that the addition of friction surface on the S-curve may have helped drivers, and while overall crashes have increased slightly without the cameras, injury-related crashes have declined.

The proposed amendment creates a municipal infraction process in which the city may seek a judgment from the court if the recipient does not pay.

The 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 restart submitting the debt to the state’s income offset program, in which the state could withhold income tax returns; and could seek the assistance of a third-party collection agency. The use of the offset program is subject of a lawsuit and an administrative appeal.

The citation is assigned to the registered owner of the vehicle, which may not be the same as the driver. Fines would range from $25 for a 1 to 5 mph speeding infraction to a $500 fine for 30 mph or higher above the speed limit, with fines doubling in construction zones. Red light infractions would be $100.

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It is unclear how the municipal infraction process would work in practice. In fiscal 2016, the most recent year in which the automated traffic camera program was fully active, 45 percent or about 69,000 of the 154,323 tickets issued went unpaid, according to state records.

The court, which handled 132 municipal infractions in 2017, could be overwhelmed by an influx of traffic camera cases, court officials have said. The Cedar Rapids Police Department plans to hire an administrative staff person devoted to processing of municipal infractions.

The police department also is planning to hire 10 new officers with expected traffic camera revenue.

The fiscal 2020 budget, which begins July 1, anticipates $4.7 million in revenue from the traffic cameras, of which $1.7 million would go to Gatso. The remaining proceeds would go to public safety purposes, including the hires.

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

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