Where you park in Minneapolis matters, at least when it comes to snow emergencies.
Hundreds of vehicles were towed from neighborhoods around the University of Minnesota during the Jan. 30 snow emergency, but almost none from the streets in the southwest corner, near Lake Harriet, according to towing data requested by the Star Tribune.
“That shouldn’t be,” said Council Member Kevin Reich, who chairs the city’s transportation and public works committee, of the lack of towing in the southwest. He called the disparity on the newspaper’s map of towing locations “glaring.”
Limited resources means the city tows fewer cars farther away from the core, but public works officials said the complete lack of towing in one area was unusual.
The city public works department blamed a breakdown that started years ago with a contractor — who, in turn, said their trucks are merely going to areas prioritized by the city.
The newspaper requested the data after Maryanne Prouty was traveling to Edina during the snow emergency and found Xerxes Avenue “littered with cars on both sides of the street.” Cars are towed within hours after the emergency is declared in north Minneapolis, where her children live, she said.
While towing isn’t needed as urgently in the southwest as other areas with more parking density, the lack of it hasn’t gone unnoticed. It has implications for road conditions, since parked cars impede plows from properly clearing streets.
Linea Palmisano, new City Council member for the southwest area, said the map was troubling. She said she has been surprised by the “volume of people calling for us to ticket and tow more frequently.”
Palmisano added that she is fighting to make Xerxes Avenue, a snow-emergency route, a one-sided parking route because it gets narrow as snow piles up on both sides.
Mike Kennedy, the city’s transportation maintenance director, attributed it to problems that arose several years ago between a city supervisor and the contractor that handles towing south of Lake Street and west of Interstate 35W, Rapid Recovery. Because of some issues getting tow trucks further south, Kennedy said the supervisor stopped prioritizing jobs there to ensure busy areas like Uptown were properly serviced.
Rapid Recovery’s General Manager Pete Olson said his employees say they are following a city list of priority streets and do travel to the southwest, but they only tow cars that have been tagged. “If there’s not cars that are tagged then we’re not going to tow them,” he said.
Teacher Ryan Olson, who lives at 59th Street and Washburn Avenue, said he has seen tickets on windshields. “I literally have not seen a single tow truck anywhere in this area all winter long,” he said.
Kennedy said his office discovered there was a problem during discussions about renewing contracts. They reminded the supervisor that the contract with Rapid Recovery allows him to order trucks where needed. When the supervisor later ordered a tow truck south during the next snow emergency, however, he was told by a company representative that they don’t travel below 36th Street.
“Absolutely we want them going down there,” Kennedy said. “We do want to at least once a winter … sprinkle some towing in every corner of the city so people still realize it’s a gamble not to comply with the rules.”
The city prioritizes towing in areas where the streets become hard to navigate because of on-street parking. That’s why University of Minnesota areas like the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood saw 186 tows and the Como neighborhood saw 87. Uptown also had a high concentration. In all, the city towed 1,200-plus vehicles during the snow emergency.
“If we don’t go there every time and very aggressively enforce, we’ll never get the streets plowed,” Kennedy said.
Reich said he wants to see stiffer penalties for contractor noncompliance when the towing contracts are opened for bids later this year.
“There’s a psychology to it as well,” he said. “If you completely write off a corner, well at some point that becomes common knowledge. And you can game it.”
Analyzing towing data was one of the first intensive statistical studies the Rybak administration performed to help guide policy decisions. Maps from 2003 show few tows south and west of Lake Harriet, with many scattered just east of the lake — where there were none during the Jan. 30 snow emergency.
“If you looked at 10 snow emergencies … I think you’d see red dots kind of moving around the map. And you would have seen them every so often up until this last contract,” Kennedy said. City records show that the city entered into a contract with Rapid Recovery and four other contractors in 2008.
The lack of towing has become noticeable to some who live in that area. “I fully agree that our streets are a mess,” said Ruth Olson, who works for several neighborhoods in the southwest area. “They’re not towing anyone, and so the plows come down and they have to plow around them.”
About 27 of the towed cars belonged to Car2Go, a car sharing service that allows customers to leave its vehicles in any legal city parking spot. The most common cars towed were Chevrolets (149), followed by Fords (146), Toyotas (137) and Hondas (122).