published Friday, May 21st, 2010

Traffic camera bill takes wrong turn

Audio clip

Gerald McCormick

NASHVILLE -- A vote to ban the use of traffic-enforcement cameras in Tennessee failed Thursday in the House, but lawmakers did approve some restrictions before the legislation stalled amid controversies over other proposed changes.

Lawmakers are expected to resume debate Monday.

Left hanging was an amendment to outlaw traffic cameras in Bluff City, Tenn., with a population of about 1,600. Upper East Tennessee legislators charged the tiny town makes a quarter of a million dollars a month on a set of speed cameras perched on U.S. 11E, where speeds inexplicably drop from 55 mph to 45 mph before heading back up to 55.

  • photo
    Staff photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Traffic cameras are in place and warnings are being issued for violaters in the 4400 block of St. Elmo Ave.

"If we could tear every one of those cameras down, we'd be doing the people of this state a great service," Rep. Henry Fincher, D-Cookeville, said.

Their vehicle of choice to do that, Senate Bill 3586, started out as an effort to expand the type of services that can be offered by AAA and other auto clubs services.

But the House version, sponsored by Rep. Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta, quickly was seized on by red-light and speeding camera foes whose own legislation hit a legislative pothole and disappeared.

With Rep. Curtiss' approval, the House voted 86-7 for an amendment by Rep. Joe McCord, R-Maryville, that adds three restrictions.

One says that beginning Jan. 1, 2011, local governments cannot place or operate a camera on highways receiving state funds unless the location is specifically approved by a city council or county commission after two public hearings on different days.

Another says no traffic citation can be reported to the state Department of Safety or to any credit reporting agency for any purpose.

Yet a third states a fine cannot exceed $50, which is current law. Violators could not be charged more than $50 for late payments, and court costs could not be imposed unless the violator actually contests the citation.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, whose own bill to curb traffic enforcement cameras has stalled in the House Budget Subcommittee and is dead in the Senate, urged colleagues to go along with the McCord amendment.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg, this amendment, but folks it's the best we can do this year," said Rep. Harmon, warning colleagues that senators might not accept further restrictions.

Before the vote, Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, told colleagues that Chattanooga is "the center of the storm a lot of times on this issue. Personally, I don't like the idea of the government watching me when I'm going places. I think it's generally a bad idea."

But he said the use of speed cameras in Chattanooga's once-deadly S curves section on Hixson Pike has been successful in deterring accidents. Teens are tempted to speed because it "looks like a race track," Rep. McCormick said, "but since we've put these cameras up I don't believe we've had a death."

Rep. McCord said, "This would not ban the use of cameras. It would set forth more limited criteria. Your S curves would be fine."

After the McCord amendment was adopted, Rep. Chad Faulkner, R-Luttrell, sought to go much further and ban all traffic cameras, despite warning by Reps. McCord and Harmon that senators would use it as an excuse to kill even modest restrictions. That effort was tabled.

House Majority Leader Jason Mumpower, R-Bristol, then pushed the Bluff City amendment. He said the cameras on U.S. 11E are "sucking out of the economy of East Tennessee over a quarter-million dollars a month" in fines.

He charged most of the money goes to a traffic camera vendor that is foreign-owned.

But Rep. McCord warned the amendment and any others like it "just gives them another excuse to kill this bill in the Senate."

Sensing trouble, Rep. Curtiss then delayed the bill until Monday. If the changes are adopted by the House, they would have to be agreed to by the Senate. If not, a House and Senate conference committee would be named and seek to iron out differences.

Matt Lea, Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield's special assistant, was at the Capitol, watching the debate. He later said there remains some "confusion" about what the McCord amendment actually does. But he said it likely would create some problems for the city's photo-enforcement program.

For example, having to approve new sites by ordinance would impact the city's ability to move quickly with its mobile photo-enforcement unit, he said.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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