NASHVILLE - A Senate panel on Tuesday blew the whistle on Chattanooga officials' hopes of using traffic cameras to crack down on speeders along a stretch of Interstate 24 slicing through Missionary Ridge and other areas.
Senate Transportation Committee members unanimously approved the bill by Sen. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville. As amended, it now bans state or local governments from using photo-enforcement cameras to catch speeders on federal interstates.
"These are basically fee grabbers and, so far as I'm concerned, they're speed traps," Sen. Burchett said of moves in recent years by cities including Chattanooga to expand use of photo enforcement of motorists violating red-light laws and speeders. "We don't need them in Tennessee."
The bill creates an exception, allowing the state Department of Transportation to deploy photo enforcement to nab speeders at interstate work sites.
Several Transportation Committee members including Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, expressed interest in expanding the ban to state highways including those in cities.
"I have received numerous complaints from the citizens," Sen. Yager said.
Sen. Burchett said he would prefer not to do that, noting, "I believe some folks would have some opposition." But he did not rule out accepting such an amendment when the measure reaches the Senate floor.
Chattanooga officials attended the meeting, fearing Sen. Burchett would carry through with the original intent of the bill, which was to lengthen yellow lights to five seconds at photo-enforced intersections. At Sen. Burchett's request, the panel rewrote the bill with an amendment containing the federal interstate provision.
Later, City Traffic Engineer John W. Van Winkle said he was pleased the yellow light issue appeared resolved, saying clearances should not be set by "artificially high clearance" times but "based on engineering analysis."
But he expressed disappointment over the exclusion of photo enforcement on interstates, noting that "we were hoping we could somehow work that out."
Mr. Van Winkle said he had been interested in setting up a demonstration project at the Missionary Ridge cut with the University of Tennessee.
"I think there are circumstances where it would be valuable to have photo enforcement on interstates where you have chronic accident districts such as the Ridge cut in Chattanooga," he said. "It's very common to have even minor collisions create massive traffic jams."
Mr. Van Winkle said "I understand the sentiment" on the committee. He said the city's interest is not in "fee grabbing" but public safety.
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said he had opposed Sen. Burchett's initial bill but went along with the interstate provision.
But he said he opposes banning use of photo enforcement for speeders on state highways such as portions of Highway 153 and Amnicola Highway.
"You can see there are instances where that's necessary for the cities to use, and they need discretion to do that," Sen. Berke said, citing the city's success in cutting traffic fatalities on the "S" curves on Hixson Pike.