Staff Columnist

Popularity may not be enough for Cedar Rapids traffic cameras

Traffic moves through the S-curve on I-380 in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Traffic moves through the S-curve on I-380 in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

So Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart is taking digital hits for his contention that most residents of this fair city want I-380 speed cameras turned back on, pronto.

“If 50 people have talked to me about the cameras, 49 of them have asked me to turn the cameras back on. And the one who doesn’t like them doesn’t live in Cedar Rapids,” Hart said in his State of the City speech last month. The cameras haven’t been spitting out tickets since 2017 due to legal wrangling.

It was the claim that launched a fleet of web polls and social media posts by folks challenging the mayor’s claim. All were about as scientifically accurate as a Trump climate briefing. The mayor received some nasty emails and had to endure charges he’s out of touch with the citizenry.

Honestly, the mayor’s unscientific sampling is pretty similar to my own. Over the last several years, as I’ve written about traffic cameras and spoken to various groups where the issue is raised, most people who express an opinion support the cameras. They simply have no sympathy for anyone cruising at 67 mph or more through the middle of the city and the S-curve.

My feelings about the camera program have been decidedly mixed. And when I’ve raised objections, I’ve mostly heard from people wondering why I would coddle lead-footed malcontents.

I also can’t recall a single contending candidate for City Council who made opposition to the cameras a central focus of her or his campaign. No one has been swept into office or tossed out the door on a wave of anti-camera outrage. In city elections I’ve witnessed, cameras weren’t among the top issues discussed.

Unlike the mayor, I won’t estimate percentages. It’s all purely anecdotal.

And not all that useful, because even a popular program or policy can be fatally flawed.

The flaw is not in traffic cameras’ ability to film and fine tens of thousands of people through the wonders of high-speed photography. The problem is adhering to the letter of low-speed legal requirements, principles and precedents. A ticket-bucks mother lode is colliding with the Iowa Code.

Snapping speeders is one thing. Collecting fines is far tougher.

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Speeders who don’t pay up can no longer be found liable by default, thanks to the Iowa Supreme Court. That legal reality ended a massive city collections effort launched just a Bah Humbug short of Christmas in 2017. The city isn’t tapping scofflaws’ tax refunds or lottery jackpots. Previously, the city found out it can’t legally threaten credit ratings.

There’s been talk since last fall of addressing legal issues by sending unpaid citations through small claims magistrates, potentially clogging Linn County’s courts with thousands of municipal camera infractions.

Now, even if the city figures out how to collect, the Legislature is talking about taking 60 percent of camera revenue for state public safety needs. A bill to do just that remains alive under the Golden Dome of Wisdom.

Hart says I-380 cameras soon will be back by popular demand, in the name of safety. Maybe so. But it’s the demands of state law — and state lawmakers — that could have the last word in Speeder Trapids.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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