SAFEclear struggling after Parker Administration tinkering

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Safe Clear tows down 60 percent, service times triple after revamp – Gabe Gutierrez, KHOU-11 News

Tows for the city’s Safe Clear initiative have dropped by 60 percent and service times have tripled since the program was revamped this summer, the Houston Police Department confirmed.

Most drivers are refusing the tows since a mandatory fee of $50 was imposed on July 1.

[snip]

Jeanette Rash manages Safe Clear. She said the tows are taking longer because wrecker operators have to educate stranded drivers about the $50 fee. But she insists the program can be saved.
[snip]

Her critics think she has a virtual monopoly. She strongly disagrees, saying that dozens of other towing companies have Safe Clear contracts.

“Not every company can do congestion management,” she said. “It takes a different level of training and professionalism.”

Let me translate Jeannette Rash’s comments: What she means is that the folks who secured their deal with the City back when it was cushy (that is, paying for every single tow as quickly as the exclusive operator for a given zone could get ’em off the streets) REALLY liked that deal. Companies that have secured government-enforced monopolies usually are pretty happy with their competitive advantage.

Now that the City of Houston isn’t coughing up the cash, and apparently stranded motorists aren’t an automatic $50 dispenser either, the government-enforced monopolies suddenly aren’t so keen to get cars off the road. Economics tells us incentives matter, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone (except perhaps to the Parker Administration, which seems easily confused in its policymaking).

Now, I’m no fan of the original Bill White/Bicycle Bob Stein approach to paying for the program (part of the incentive was that tow operators could charge for storage and/or confiscate cars whose drivers couldn’t pay the original fee). I wasn’t all that bothered when SAFEclear was revised, and began using tax/METRO dollars to fund a program that arguably did improve mobility (unfortunately, METRO’s light-rail obsession has left it in precarious financial straits, so it can no longer focus on broader mobility). And I was never a fan of the Houston Way approach to assigning certain tow operators to zones, rather than considering more economic/incentive-oriented approaches to getting stalls/accidents cleared in a timely manner; that seemed more like a way to pick/reward favorites than anything.

We’d encourage the Parker Administration to go back and reconsider that last part of the equation (but we won’t be holding our collective breath).


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