Downtown View:Curiouser and Curiouser

In the last three weeks, one vehicle on my block was not towed on street cleaning days. This has never happened in the last decade. The debris under those cars sat there for two weeks.

A South End resident said a car on her street last week was not towed. Again, the cigarette butts, doggie-doo bags and dirt will remain. Even if residents sweep up, they can’t get under the car.

What gives? There seems to be more tolerance for scofflaw car owners and less concern about clean streets coming from City Hall. The Boston Herald first flagged this change of heart in February when they quoted a South Boston resident who said less towing will “reduce stress” for residents. Then they quoted the mayor as saying “if we’re able to get to a street and clean the majority of the street, we might not have to tow every single person that’s in the roadway.”

This idea sends the downtown neighborhoods into shock. The Alliance of Downtown Civic Organizations (ADCO) has prepared a letter urging the mayor to aggressively enforce street cleaning towing, according to Steve Wintermeier, who represents the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay. “Owning a vehicle is a privilege,” he said. “With that privilege comes responsibility.”

So what is the program that induces stress in parking scofflaws and that dirt-weary downtown residents adore?

         After years of pleading, in fall, 2005, the downtown neighborhoods acquired the new program of towing vehicles whose owners couldn’t be bothered to move them so the mechanical street cleaners could do their work. Depending on the neighborhood and the weather, street cleaning can last from March 1 through December. The city engaged private tow companies, since the city does not own enough trucks. There were problems at first, but now they are mostly solved.

The Boston Transportation Department issues fines of $40. The companies charge up to $90 for the tow, $35 a day for storage and a small fuel surcharge. The tow’s high price, plus the inconvenience of getting to distant neighborhoods to retrieve one’s car meant most people quickly learned to move their car.

Some did not. Public Works Commissioner Michael Dennehy, whose department oversees the towing program, which has grown considerably, said the trucks tow about the same number of cars now as they did in 2005. Some people never learn.

Nevertheless, the downtown neighborhoods noticed a significant difference in their streets’ cleanliness from towing. The mechanical sweepers do a good job if they can get to the curb.

But popularity has caused problems. Except for the Seaport, Bay Village, West Roxbury and Hyde Park, most neighborhoods have at least some streets in the towing program because residents clamored for it, said Dennehy. Fifty Boston streets last year alone were added to the program. So tow lots fill up quickly. Only one out of four cars is actually towed on any street cleaning day.

The city recently proposed a pilot program for one neighborhood to assess whether not towing a car, but increasing the fine to $90 from $40, would be as effective as towing.

So many questions follow the weird thinking the city seems to be going through. The first question is for the mayor. Why would cleaning the “majority” of the street help if there is still a pile of debris under the cars that remain? How would you decide fairly which cars would be towed? Who would make that decision?

Downtown residents might also ask why the scofflaws’ stress is more important than the stress of those who have to live with dirt? Why would City Hall want to reduce effectiveness in a program that most neighborhoods want?

Interestingly, Dennehy seems to regret having to oversee this program.  “I shouldn’t be in the towing business,” he said.

I asked city officials why they believe a ticket costing only $90 would deter scofflaws if the higher ticket plus towing price they now pay doesn’t deter them. Tracey Ganiatsos, spokesperson for the Transportation Department, said BTD cannot guarantee towing, but they can guarantee that a scofflaw will be ticketed. “We expect this will lead to increased compliance,” she wrote in an email.

I’m skeptical.

As of last week, the pilot program had not officially been assigned to a neighborhood. The program’s duration and how success will be measured had not been determined. Not all city departments had been brought up to speed. Moreover, the Boston City Council, which must approve changes to parking ticket rates, had not been consulted. Commissioner Dennehy promised representatives from the South End and Beacon Hill that the pilot program would not take place in their neighborhoods and the towing would remain.

Meanwhile, Steve Wintermeier hopes the city will continue with aggressive towing, but will also figure out novel ways to deal with scofflaws. For example, he wondered why on some streets a tow truck couldn’t pick up a car for the street cleaner and put it back. He said there might not be one solution that will work for all neighborhoods. He hopes ADCO’s letter to the mayor will be the beginning of that conversation.

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