They’re not popular with the public, but since the first traffic camera was installed in Iowa nearly a decade ago, dozens have sprouted up throughout the state and that trend is likely to continue after state lawmakers opted not to impose limits on local governments.
A measure that would have required cities and counties to get a permit from the state Department of Transportation before installing new traffic cameras has apparently died this legislative session. The proposal also would have forced local governments to justify existing cameras by submitting traffic data to the department.
Gov. Terry Branstad has long been skeptical about the cameras, and a Department of Transportation official expressed puzzlement that the legislative proposal failed.
Steve Gent, the Transportation Department’s director of traffic and safety, said it made sense for the state to watch over use of the cameras, in part because unlike local governments, the state doesn’t receive revenue from the devices so can’t be accused of letting budget issues influence its decisions.
“We’re surprised and baffled and disappointed,” Gent said. “It made sense the public would accept the fact that the DOT should put oversight onto this ... we don’t get any of the money.”
Without state restrictions, Gent said he expects more cities will install cameras, noting that Dubuque, Iowa City and Polk County are considering camera programs.
Davenport in 2004 became the first city in Iowa to install traffic cameras. Since then, at least 66 cameras have been placed throughout the state, including in Council Bluffs, Cedar Rapids, Clive, Des Moines, Fort Dodge, Muscatine, Sioux City and Windsor Heights.
Local governments argue the cameras are a proven tool for reducing accidents, and Des Moines points to statistics showing a drop in crashes at intersections with the cameras.
Still, the public is far from sold on the technology. A poll by the Des Moines Register released in February showed that 50 percent of Iowans want to outlaw the cameras while 43 percent opposed such a move.
In Iowa City, a group called Stop Big Brother has collected 1,200 signatures in an effort to stop the city’s plans for new traffic cameras.
“We do believe the city wants more money,” said Aleksey Gurtovoy, an organizer of the group. “They act like it’s an epidemic, like people are suddenly running red lights and causing accident.”
Fines for those caught by the cameras vary widely.
In Des Moines, tickets for running a red light or speeding start at $65, with speeding infractions increasing for those who far exceed the posted limit.
In Sioux City, speeding tickets start at $168 and climb as the excessive speed increases. Those running red lights face a $195 fine.
Revenue from the cameras also vary widely, with Des Moines and Davenport bringing in more than $1 million annually and Cedar Rapids pulling in more than $4 million.
The Polk County Board of Supervisors has approved a plan to buy two mobile speed cameras that would move to new spots every couple of weeks with public notice.
Board chairman Tom Hockensmith said the sheriff asked the board to consider placing them in rural, unincorporated areas to curb a rising number of speed-related accidents involving teenagers.
“What frustrates me is folks argue this is all about fundraising for local government ... If it was a ‘gotcha’ type thing we would hide the cameras and not tell you where they’re going to be on a weekly basis,” he said.
Hockensmith said the fines will start at $65 for speeding 11 miles over the limit. Money raised from the cameras will go toward upgrading the county’s radio communication system.
Lawmakers who opposed giving the state greater control over the cameras called for more discussions with local officials. Rep. Walt Rogers, who introduced the measure that failed this session, is tired of waiting.
Rogers originally wanted to ban all traffic cameras but said he worked with the chairman of the Senate transportation committee, Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, on the scaled-back bill that gave the Transportation Department power to regulate them.
Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, said he’s not convinced cameras do anything to change drivers’ habits.
“It doesn’t go on your record so it doesn’t improve safety,” he said. “A habitual violator could get 50 of these tickets, never pay them and never get stopped and never get their license taken away.”
Rogers said he will try again to at least regulate the cameras.“My hope is that people continue to dislike them more and more and they rise up and say, let’s get rid of them,” he said.