Jeffery Thole blames two culprits for the rutted, bumpy, slippery side streets of his neighborhood near Como Lake: the city of St. Paul for taking too long to plow during the last snow emergency and neighbors who didn’t move their cars in time, resulting in rock-hard plow ridges that are a hazard to drive over.
Thole hopes a recent City Council vote to increase towing fees will get parked cars off snowy streets. “People need to move their cars,” he said. “Either way — increasing tickets or increasing towing — it will be a big cost and get people to move.”
Each winter brings snow emergency angst to St. Paul. Beyond their wrath at the city and neighbors, some are left with the question: Why doesn’t St. Paul tow more cars to ensure more streets are cleared curb to curb?
The answer, say city officials and tow-truck operators, is basic math. St. Paul has far more cars parked on the streets than it has tow trucks to haul them away.
Even though St. Paul issues thousands of tickets for illegal parking every snow emergency, there are only enough tow trucks on the road to pull about one-fifth of those cars to impound lots. That leaves thousands of parked cars in the way — every single snowstorm.
“We can’t tow all the cars that don’t move off the streets so our plows can get through,” said Lisa Hiebert, a Public Works spokeswoman. “You just can’t tow the streets clear.”
The system is not designed to do that. Snow emergencies are called to get car owners to move their cars until the streets are cleared. But, Hiebert said, with more than 1,800 miles of streets to clear in about 24 hours, drivers of the up to 80 plows have to follow their schedules. While thousands of cars get moved, thousands don’t.
Ticketing and towing is meant to compel people to move their cars to avoid extra costs. In last week’s snow emergency, St. Paul issued 2,226 tickets; just 373 cars were towed — about 16.8%. It’s about the same rate as over seven snow emergencies last year, when 20,447 tickets were issued and 3,413 cars towed.
In Minneapolis, the tow rate is higher. In the snow emergency the city declared Nov. 27, 5,317 tickets were issued and 1,247 vehicles were towed — a tow rate of 23%.
Melissa Peterson of Bobby & Steve’s Auto World, one of two towing companies St. Paul uses to clear away cars during snow emergencies, said those numbers should begin to rise after the recent hike in towing fees. The St. Paul City Council raised it to $175 — up from $90 to $120 per tow. It’s the first increase in years and should, Peterson said, make it easier to persuade more of Bobby & Steve’s 16 subcontractors — each with one to four trucks — to work in St. Paul.
During the last snow emergency, she said, only four subcontractors worked St. Paul streets.
“If the price were good enough we could probably get all 2,200 cars picked up,” she said, adding that Bobby & Steve’s intends to work more closely with Guardian Towing, the city’s other contractor, this winter. “We do the best we can for the city.”
LeeAnn Larson, who lives on St. Paul’s East Side, shares Thole’s dissatisfaction with the city’s winter streets. But she’s not so sure that towing more cars is the answer.
“I’ve been a struggling single mom and getting towed always put me behind,” she said, wondering if instead of calling for more towing, neighbors could help move each others’ cars. “It’s about neighbor awareness, knocking on people’s doors.”
Lindsay Ferris Martin, a West Side resident who unsuccessfully ran for City Council this year, said a city of more than 300,000 needs to have its streets safely cleared and she said officials must find better ways for snow emergencies to work. Perhaps the city should let people park in city lots and ramps until the streets are cleared, she said.
“We need our city plowed. We need to get through,” Ferris Martin said. “It’s really a safety issue.”
Christopher Mallet, who has lived in his Midway area apartment for the past five years, wonders if it’s much ado about a system that mostly works.
“I have moved my car for every snow emergency and have survived winter,” Mallet said. “There are many people in the neighborhood with an unhealthy obsession with streets being plowed down to the asphalt all winter long like the streets in the suburbs.
“Regardless of what happens, residents will still be complaining about winter,” he said.