CEDAR RAPIDS — A proposal to ban traffic cameras throughout Iowa — except on the dangerous S-curve on Interstate 380 by downtown Cedar Rapids — got the green light Thursday from the Iowa Senate Judiciary Subcommittee.
Senate Study Bill 1176 seeks to bar Iowa communities from using automated traffic enforcement systems, reviving lawmakers’ on-again, off-again attempts for years to regulate or eliminate them. Some lawmakers see the cameras as traffic safety tools that reduce public safety costs, while others slam them as cash-generating constitutional violations.
This bill would let cameras stay along the S-curve, though it doesn’t specifically say Cedar Rapids: “This prohibition does not apply to a segment of an interstate road along or reasonably preceding or succeeding an elevated portion of the road with two adjacent circular curves with deflections in opposite directions located in a city having a population of between 120,000 and 130,000 based on the 2010 federal decennial census.”
This is not the first legislative attempt to tinker with the devices, which capture video of cars speeding or running red lights so local law enforcement can review the images flagged and issue citations to the registered owners.
Sen. Brad Zaun, a Republican from Urbandale who introduced the bill, said he took into account local officials’ concerns about the S-curve.
Police have long said the elevated curve is prone to crashes but leaves no room for stationing squad cars for traffic enforcement.
“It is one area that I do believe that this is probably appropriate or that I could at least tolerate, because it would be a very dangerous situation in that particular instance,” Zaun said.
The legislation would otherwise require local authorities using the devices before July 1, the start of fiscal 2022, to stop using them and remove them. But it would not invalidate traffic tickets issued before then.
The bill is not clear if all four camera locations along I-380 Cedar Rapids could remain. Zaun did not immediately respond to requests for comment after the hearing.
Closer to downtown, there are cameras at southbound First Avenue SW and northbound Diagonal Drive SW. A city report from December, the most recent data available, shows 103 speeding citations were issued at the former location and 1,532 at the latter that month.
But the biggest moneymakers for the city are the cameras on northbound and southbound J Avenue NE, north of the S-curve. The city issued 8,763 speeding citations across both locations in December, contributing the lion’s share of the approximately $596,000 in revenue for the month.
So far, all the devices have generated more than $4.68 million in fiscal 2021, the budget year ending June 30.
Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman told the three-member subcommittee crashes resulting in injury along I-380 where the cameras are in place are down 57.3 percent compared with the three years before the devices were installed. He also cited the cameras as the key reason there were no fatal crashes last year along the curve.
Jerman said the cameras provide 24/7 traffic monitoring so these devices can monitor motorist behavior at a lower cost than deploying officers to the areas.
Jerman said this allows him to send officers to areas that need police to fight crime and address quality-of-life.
He added the city has committed to using revenue from its automated traffic camera system to enhance public safety and to fund 27 police officer positions.
And amid calls for police reform after the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Jerman said revenue also will fund police reform programs. The city’s proposed fiscal 2022 budget calls for $25,000 to support the newly created citizens’ police review board.
While Floyd’s death also renewed calls to eliminate bias in policing, Jerman said cameras help accomplish that by reducing the need for traffic stops.
“Taking away this proven tool will result in more crashes, more injuries and more loss of life,” Jerman said. “Can taking take away this tool be justified to our public? Taking away this effective tool would be irresponsible and reprehensible to the public safety mission.”
In addition to Cedar Rapids, 10 other Iowa communities have automated traffic enforcement systems, according to Steve Gent, the Traffic and Safety Bureau director with the state Department of Transportation.
They are Sioux City, Council Bluffs, Des Moines, Fort Dodge, Chester, Waterloo, Independence, Le Claire, Davenport and Muscatine. Prairie City and Fayette are close to installing cameras, Gent said, and a vendor provided the department with a list of seven other Iowa communities also close to installing the devices though there may be no agreement yet.
Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, said the bill “jeopardizes the safety of our law enforcement” and would have the effect of cutting $3 million in revenue to the Des Moines department.
He took issue with the proposal given other legislation that would bar local governments from receiving state funds if their elected officials reduce the budget of their law enforcement agency, with some exceptions.
“I don’t know how we could say that this bill does not de-appropriate the Des Moines police because this bill, or this law, designates the income from this to law enforcement,” Bisignano said. “This isn’t a general fund appropriation; this is a designated law enforcement fund.”
But he was outvoted, with Republican subcommittee members Zaun and Jason Schultz of Schleswig agreeing to send the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee.