Cities scoff at state's traffic camera plan

2013-10-08T14:20:00Z 2014-04-02T18:54:20Z Cities scoff at state's traffic camera planRod Boshart, Capital Bureau 515-243-7220; Muscatine Journal

DES MOINES, Iowa — Representatives from cities that operate speed and red-light traffic enforcement cameras in Iowa argued Tuesday they should be allowed to decide how and where to use the devices, not a subjective bureaucratic overseer in the state Department of Transportation.

City officials challenged the DOT’s authority to require local jurisdictions annually to document safety justifications for fixed or mobile traffic enforcement cameras on state primary and interstate highways, given the rules being proposed were vague and not the result of any legislation limiting home rule for cities and counties to decide these matters.

“They are just a back-handed way to remove photo enforcement from the primary roadways,” Sioux City Police Capt. Melvin Williams told members of the Legislature’s Administrative Rules Review Committee in opposing the rules to require a justification for the implementation, placement and use of automated traffic enforcement systems including provisions relating to motorist safety, signage and effectiveness.

Williams said red-light cameras and mobile speed enforcement trailers have produced positive results in reducing violations and increasing safety in his city, but mobile speed enforcement would effectively be banned on interstate highways by his read of DOT’s proposed changes.

“There is no clearly defined definition of anything here. It’s totally subjective,” Williams said.

“The rules appear to imply for the first time that law enforcement in Iowa will need the director’s permission to do enforcement of speed limit and red-light cameras,” he said. “The level of safety increases should be left to the community or should be something that is established by the Legislature.

In Muscatine, safety has improved at the five intersections where the cameras are employed, according to Phil Sergent, the assistant chief of police. In 2011-12, there was a 30 percent reduction in crashes at intersections equipped with the cameras, and a 32 percent decline in speed and red light running violations since the program was initiated. In 2013, so far, there's been a 20 percent further decline in violations from 2012, with a continuation of the reduced crashes at the intersections with equipment in place, Sargent said.

DOT Director Paul Trombino said his agency’s interest in promulgating the new rules was to establish a comprehensive “umbrella” for the state’s highway system that strives for safety, uniformity, consistency and transparency for the motoring public. He said he was disappointed by some of the comments he heard at Tuesday’s meeting that appeared to miss the mark on what’s key to the discussion given there are nearly a dozen communities with traffic enforcement cameras and the number is growing.

“From my perspective, this is safety disguised as revenue and I think you heard it from Sioux City,” said Trombino, who noted that some of the safety improvements that were cited for Sioux City were due to DOT measures to reduce speeds in work zones along Interstate 29. To attribute the improvements solely to mobile speed devices “is completely false,” he said.

Several legislators expressed concern that fines being assessed for violations recorded by automated traffic enforcement devices ranged from $65 in Des Moines to $168 in Sioux City. Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, said Iowa had a “patchwork” system as it relates to traffic cameras, while Rep. Dawn Pettengill, R-Mount Auburn, said she was confident the DOT has the authority to propose the rules despite protestations from city officials.

However, Dustin Miller of Iowa League of Cities said right-of-way issues and other factors raised questions whether state control of fixed cameras was “tenuous at best.” He told the committee members he was concerned the vaguely written rules would give DOT officials “unfettered discretion” in areas where there is concurrent state and local jurisdiction.

Larry Murphy, a former state legislator who lobbies for the city of Cedar Rapids, expressed concern the propose DOT rules before the committee “will become law unless you slow things down” with a public hearing slated to be held Oct. 30 in Ankeny and implementation to be final by Feb. 12 if they clear the administrative process.

“This is a tool that I need to help police my town,” Council Bluffs Police Chief Ralph O’Donnell told the 10-member legislative panel Tuesday. “The red-light cameras assist us in doing our job to provide public safety.”

Fixed and mobile traffic enforcement devices currently are being used to monitor vehicle speeds and red-light compliance on portions of state highways, city streets and county roads in Council Bluffs, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Fort Dodge, Muscatine, Sioux City and several jurisdictions within Polk County. The state does not own, operate or receive compensation for any automated traffic enforcement system in Iowa.

— Mike Ferguson of the Muscatine Journal contributed to this report

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