DOT: Cedar Rapids has not reached out about traffic camera exemption

By B.A. Morelli, The Gazette

CEDAR RAPIDS — The City of Cedar Rapids announced Thursday it won’t take down, move or turn off two speed cameras that the Iowa Department of Transportation says don’t comply with new state rules.

Also, the city will not rescind any of the approximately 40,670 tickets — worth more than $3 million — issued on those cameras since February, when the new rules took effect. Meanwhile, some are criticizing Cedar Rapids for knowingly operating cameras not incompliance with state rules.

On Friday, the DOT notified Cedar Rapids by email that cameras along Interstate 380 — J Avenue southbound at 895 feet and Diagonal Drive northbound at 860 feet — are within 1,000 feet of signs indicating speed limit changes, in violation of the new state rules.

“The cameras will continue to operate as they have been operating since 2010 as we move forward,” Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman said during a news conference on Thursday afternoon at the police department.

He added, “The tickets that have been issued are still valid to vehicles that have violated the speed, and they are valid documents and there is not reason for refunds because the city intends to uphold the condition of the program.”

The Iowa DOT contacted all six cities — Cedar Rapids, Sioux City, Davenport, Des Moines, Council Bluffs and Muscatine — that use so-called traffic enforcement cameras on primary roadways for additional information to annual reports submitted in May. Those reports were intended to justify the use and placement of the hotly debated cameras. Only Cedar Rapids was notified it had cameras not in compliance.

The annual reports are a new requirement from the administrative rules established in February to provide consistency across the state and ensure the cameras improved safety and are not a tool to generate revenue.

On Thursday, Mayor Ron Corbett stressed important safety improvements he attributes to the four cameras installed in 2010, including no fatalities and fewer accidents on the I-380 S-curve. He said the DOT hasn’t questioned the safety data, which he said is the primary purpose of the cameras.

“Nowhere in those emails or those communications have they questioned the cameras’ role in providing that increased safety,” Corbett said. ”The only thing they questioned here at the beginning was whether the cameras were within the 1000-foot guideline — and really, that is all it is, an arbitrary guideline.”

Corbett called the non-compliance “a minor variation” and one with “several common sense solutions to avoiding this to escalate to degrees that neither the city nor the DOT wants.”

He said the DOT could give Cedar Rapids an exemption to keep the cameras in place, give the city permission to move the cameras, or move its speed limit signs.

“In a way, we see this as a kind of little silly argument between the city and the DOT, and we do believe it will be one that will end up resolving itself in favor of safety,” Corbett said. “And we won’t get tied up in some bureaucratic administrative rule that would put in jeopardy the citizens that live in Cedar Rapids, or the good people that travel in Cedar Rapids on a daily basis.”

Cedar Rapids officials have not contacted the DOT to ask for an exemption, said Steve Gent, the DOT director of traffic and safety. And the DOT, which has authority over the cameras, has not directed the city to turn off or move the cameras, Corbett said.

Both sides say they want to work with each other to sort out the issue.

Gent said while the DOT would listen to rationale for moving speed signs, they are generally in place for a reason. He said he expects Cedar Rapids to propose a solution much sooner than the 30 day time frame referenced in the DOT email.

“Generally, you’d think the speed limit change was there for a good reason and that should stay and the cameras should move further away from there,” Gent said.

Dawn Pettengill, a Republican representative from Mount Auburn and co-leader of the Legislature’s Administrative Rules Committee which backed the new DOT rules, said the 1,000 foot rule was put in place out of safety concerns.

“The reason was, it gives drivers a reasonable distance to adjust the speed before hitting the cameras,” she said. “It was for safety; it would help stop rear-end (collisions).”

She called placing cameras so close to a speed change “a setup,” and was critical of Cedar Rapids for continuing to operate the cameras knowing they don’t comply with the rules. She said Cedar Rapids should reimburse people ticketed on those cameras since February.

“I would walk it back,” Pettengill said. “That would mean refunding people money. … They were deliberately collecting money knowing cameras were in a place that didn’t give drivers enough time to slow down.”

The cameras have been a controversial topic since its inception, with many residents opposed to them on principle. However, the latest development has sparked a new round of frustration with some seeking recourse.

Others support the cameras, and say people who’ve been ticketed wouldn’t be in the situation if they weren’t speeding.

The city attorney would hold jurisdiction on traffic camera tickets, which start at $75 each. These tickets are classified separately from traditional speeding tickets issued by police officers, and they do not go on driving records.

Because the city is standing behind the non-compliant cameras, lawyers say suing the city appears to be the only course of action for those fined since Feb. 12 when the new administrative rule took effect.

“If local authorities are not going to address this, and come up with their own remedy, (suing the city) would be the next course of action for individuals seeking a remedy,” said Brian Johnson, an attorney with Jacobsen, Johnson and Wiezorek.

And, they said given Cedar Rapids is operating cameras out of compliance with state rule, they’d have a good case, Johnson and Mike Lahammer, of Lahammer Law Firm, both said in separate interviews with The Gazette.

Because of the small ticket size, file individual lawsuits may not be appealing, they said. They both also said given the large number of people affected and the total dollar amount, the situation could be ripe for a class-action lawsuit.

“Whenever you get a ruling affecting a large number of people, it might make it appealing for an attorney to take it as class action,” Johnson said. “It could be used to bring to the case to court in a more effective manner,”

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