Cities create 7-mile speed trap on I-70 in St. Louis County

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

ST. ANN, Mo. -- Police Detective Ray Albers dons a uniform and punches in for an overtime detail. He'll be driving one of six chase cars as part of the city's stepped up speeding enforcement on Interstate 70.

"The surprise is the amount of speeders that are out here," Albers said while awaiting word from spotters in the nearby Drury Inns office building. "We continually get speeders. They see us out here at least three times a week. I wrote the same guy twice."

St. Ann and seven of its north St. Louis County neighbors have created a seven-mile gantlet for speeders along a stretch of I-70 that extends roughly from Lambert-St. Louis International Airport to the St. Louis city limit. They set and enforce their own fines -- and the tickets many of them issue are much heftier than those written by the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Since they began the special detail in mid-July, St. Ann police officers figure they have written about 6,000 tickets. Motorists stopped for speeding on I-70 are subject to fines that usually start at $200 for topping the speed limit by 11 mph and can soar to $300 for higher speeds.

St. Ann's speeding fines and tactics -- which involve officers using a tripod-mounted LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) to identify speeding cars from a distance -- have many motorists fuming about the crackdown as a sort of assembly-line speed trap.

"Outrageous," motorist Randy Wilkerson of O'Fallon, Mo., said while waiting outside St. Ann City Hall for traffic court this month. "I've never had a $250 ticket."

Wilkerson was stopped for driving 73 mph on eastbound I-70 on a low-traffic Saturday morning in November. By the time he reached the three-quarter-mile stretch inside St. Ann city boundaries, he saw several police cruisers waiting.

Wilkerson was written up for exceeding the speed limit by 18 mph. But he showed up last week with proof that the Missouri Department of Transportation had increased the speed limit to 60 mph before he was ticketed, meaning he had exceeded the limit by 13 mph. Under St. Ann's traffic fine schedule, it meant the difference of $50.

Wilkerson said he was able to get the fine knocked down to $150 that night, but it is "still higher than anywhere else."

The eight cities initially dubbed the seven-mile stretch of I-70 an "accident reduction corridor." Last month, however, MoDOT formally labeled it a Travel Safe Zone, mandating double fines. St. Ann, it turns out, had already been collecting fines that were roughly double those assessed for tickets written by the highway patrol. In all, four cities between Lambert and the St. Louis city limit write the more expensive tickets.

Cities can set and enforce speeding fines, even if it is on a highway, according to a spokesman for Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster. But Missouri's little-used speed trap law caps the percentage of a city's budget that can be generated by traffic fines from a state or federal highway at 35 percent.

St. Ann police chief Bob Schrader said the traffic enforcement isn't about the money -- even though St. Ann's tax base has taken a hit with the loss of retail shops at the once-thriving Northwest Plaza, which lost two of its last major anchors last year. Instead, he hopes to prevent speed-related traffic accidents on that section of I-70.

"Our stretch of 70 is or was out of control," Schrader said. "We're trying to get it back into control. It's all about the accidents. We want to drop those accidents."

The number of accidents have dropped during the past six months, Schrader said. Between Jan. 1, 2010, and July 19 -- the day the accident reduction corridor was launched -- there were 42 accidents on I-70 in St. Ann. Since July 19, there have been 10 accidents.

The Missouri Department of Transportation said it found that the seven miles of I-70 had an above-average rate of accidents. As a result, it is one of five Travel Safe Zones that have been established across the state. Signs warn motorists that fines are doubled.

Schrader takes issue with the characterization of his operation as a speed trap, which he said often involves abrupt changes in the speed limit. By contrast, the I-70 speed limit gradually changes from 70 mph west of Wentzville to 55 mph near Interstate 170.

"To be a speed trap, you've got to be hiding and keeping it secret," he said. "We want everyone to know that we're here so they slow down."

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