Mayor's $AFEclear spin machine starts to wobble

Mayor White and supporters of his flawed $AFEclear initiative are starting to have a little trouble with their talking points.

On the Chris Baker program a few days ago, the Mayor himself denied the program was about generating revenues, then asserted later that the new revenues would be used for additional traffic cops and equipment (what new revenues?).

In the press release (pdf file) announcing the program, the Mayor's office asserted that $AFEclear is "modeled" on a New York program.

Thanks to some solid research from Chronicle reporter Rad Sallee, we now know that the Mayor's office didn't get any mandatory tow provisions from New York's program:

"We have an authorized tow program, but if you want to change a tire you can do so without a mandatory tow," said Jason Post, spokesman for the New York Police Department.

Post said cars abandoned on a freeway are towed. But for disabled cars, he said, the policy is to render assistance, which could include pushing the vehicle to a safe area, "creating a safety zone" around it or voluntary towing for a set fee.

$AFEclear is far more draconian than New York's program, which sounds much like our existing MAP program. In response to the actual provisions of New York's program, Czar Saperstein began to spin:

David Saperstein, chairman of the Mayor's Office of Mobility in Houston, said the policy is "loosely based" on New York's.

But the press release said "modeled," not loosely based. That must have been an oversight.

Sallee noted the key provision that Mayor White, Czar Saperstein, Councilman Berry, and Professor Stein apparently did seize on from New York:

Where Houston did belatedly follow the lead of New York and several other cities was in assigning specific freeway segments to certain companies, to eliminate the hazard of wreckers racing to a scene and blocking traffic.

The bolded portion is the ostensible reason freeway segments were assigned to certain companies. Another reason is that the city was able to construct these segments to be individually biddable, thereby enhancing the revenue potential of these exclusive $AFEclear zones they created. This city has a long history creating exclusive tow zones, which were (for a time) held unconstitutional by federal courts (we would note that proponents of these revenue-generating tow zones made the same "safety" arguments back then, even though they never supported their claims with any evidence) -- there's nothing "belated" about exclusive tow zones in this city. Further, dividing the $AFEclear segments into separate areas was advantageous to proponents of the plan and wrecker companies for other reasons:

Stein said the biggest factor in determining how much towing companies bid for their segments was not the expected number of tows or miles of freeway, but the average age of vehicles there.

Vehicles on the city's largely industrial east side average about 4 years older than those in the affluent western suburbs, he said.

Stein's conclusion: "Tows were not the driving force in the bidding."

On the west side, he said, "it was the opportunity to make referrals for repairs." On the east side, the tow operator's profits are likely to come from storage lots and reselling impounded vehicles whose owners cannot afford to pay the fees, he said.

So, Professor Stein is now on the record admitting that the program he helped to create under the guise of public safety contained the implicit assumption that part of the value of the exclusive $AFEclear permit would be the knowledge that towing companies would profit from storage and reselling of seized vehicles of some citizens. That certainly doesn't sound motorist friendly!

Professor Stein doesn't seem to care that much, as he asserts that a seemingly more motorist-friendly policy "won't work":

Stein also responded to the idea of limiting Safe Clear to rush hour. "It won't work for the wrecker companies," he said.

It won't work for the wrecker companies?! Isn't the alleged priority public safety, and not the fiscal health of those wrecker companies that bought themselves an effective monopoly on certain sections of freeway? It's not about the money, right Professor?

The talking points continue to contradict, which is what can happen when pols and their advisors try to evade reality.

Professor Stein seems to enjoy digging himself in, contending that even though the city is taking in $1 million from tow companies (time frame unspecified), it's still not about the money:

"I think the program will cost the city more than it will bring in, at least in the first few years," Stein said. "You'll need additional police, motorcycles, dispatchers at TranStar and so on."

The city may need those things, but there are no indications that Mayor White and his Council have made any moves to boost HPD cadet classes, or make major purchases of equipment besides Tasers. But it's good that someone associated with $AFEclear has finally admitted that the wrecker oligopoly scheme was about generating revenue, and indeed that it has.

And that's where Professor Stein decides to dig some more:

He notes that the $75 is a sharp reduction from the $110 to $150 previously charged for towing. And the total of $1 million that towing companies have agreed to pay the city is a drop in Houston's overall budget.

Is it any wonder the city is in such a financial mess, when advisors like Professor Stein regard $1 million as a trifling amount?! Still, if it's such a trifling amount, here's a question: Why won't the city consider scrapping this unpopular program that elites have forced upon the citizenry, and expand a program that makes a lot more sense? Answer: Because $1 million isn't a trifling amount, and this is another instance of it being a good rule not to believe pols and their advisors when they say "it's not about the money."

Previously, we've heard Dan Patrick assert that motorists who don't have $75 to spare shouldn't be clogging the roads for self-important elites like himself anyway. Professor Stein joins that chorus:

But Rice University professor Bob Stein, who helped design the program, predicted the numbers will decline as motorists ensure their cars are roadworthy or drive on surface streets.

The peasants can drive on the side streets if they don't have their $75, because important men like Mayor White, Czar Saperstein, Professor Stein, and Dan Patrick need to get around this city and don't want to be slowed by the peasants. The arrogance -- not to mention condescension -- of these affluent elites is stunning!

So, here's a recap of what we now know thanks to some solid local reporting by Rad Sallee:

$AFEclear's mandatory towing provisions are not based on a program in New York, and indeed appear to be the most draconian of major cities in Texas, if not the country. The proponents of the plan insist it's not about the money, but now a mayoral advisor says it netted $1 million (he regards that as a trifling amount). One architect of the plan admits that the exclusive $AFEclear permit zones (miniature monopoly zones) were created with the full knowledge that companies in some areas would bid more than in others, based on the potential that citizens in some areas would be less able to afford related fees and their cars could be resold (thereby creating a profit motive for the wrecker companies). Further, said architect of the plan admits that a less draconian plan wouldn't "work for wrecker companies" (which presumably would mean smaller $AFEclear permit bids and less revenue for the city -- even though he said it's not about the money).

Anne Linehan is right -- this doesn't seem to be a very good example of the customer-oriented government that Mayor White has promised.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/09/05 11:07 PM | Print |

Bookmark and Share

Previous Entry | Home | Next Entry


+BH Commentary (RSS)
+Contact Us
+Local News Headlines



All content © 2004-09, blogHOUSTON and the respective authors. is powered by Nucleus.

Site design and Nucleus customization are by Kevin Whited.