It was noon yesterday on Highway 59 near downtown, and the traffic was moving at warp speed. Cars and trucks barreled past Rafael Gonzalez, but he was going nowhere. His Range Rover had...
HOUSTON — It was noon yesterday on Highway 59 near downtown, and the traffic was moving at warp speed. Cars and trucks barreled past Rafael Gonzalez, but he was going nowhere. His Range Rover had run out of gas, forcing the 43-year-old financial representative to push the car to the shoulder and call for help.
Thirty minutes later, he was still waiting.
“All these cars flying by, I could get whacked by one of them,” Gonzalez said, his suit jacket flapping in the breeze.
Come Saturday, city leaders say, this scene should no longer play out in Houston, where a strict towing ordinance designed to keep the traffic moving and drivers out of harm’s way will take effect. Under the law, if your vehicle breaks down for any reason, a city-contracted wrecker should arrive within six minutes, tow it away, then present a bill to you for at least $75. All freeways within the city limits will be, in effect, tow-away zones.
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“This will ease congestion on our freeways, and as a community, we’re saying that’s important to our quality of life,” city spokesman Patrick Trahan said.
Houston’s ordinance, which passed last May, met resistance from independent tow-truck drivers who feared losing business. Advocates for the poor pointed out that cars could be impounded if drivers could not immediately pay for the tow; drivers would then have to pay not only the tow charge but also storage fees for their car.
“The impact it will have on people who can least afford it is certainly an issue,” said Houston Councilwoman Addie Wiseman, who voted against the measure. “And senior citizens traveling through Houston in recreational vehicles run the risk of having to pay $1,500 for a heavy tow fee if their mobile vacation homes break down. This ordinance is flawed in every sense of the word.”
Two state lawmakers from Houston have talked to her about reviewing the measure after the Legislature convenes on Jan. 11, Wiseman said.
“No one is doubting the city’s effort to keep traffic moving, but the objection that is being raised is the forced taking of personal property from the (freeway) shoulders,” Wiseman added. “That’s not city property, that’s state property.”
On Saturday, 11 city-contracted towing companies will begin cruising Houston’s major freeways looking for stranded drivers. Cameras mounted on freeway light poles and police officers on patrol also will help locate accidents and stalled cars.
Motorists can tell the wrecker driver where to tow the car, within 30 miles. Members of AAA and other auto clubs offering roadside assistance will not be allowed to wait for a private tow truck. That was news to Henry Martinez, 54, who was checking under the hood of his SUV at a gas station yesterday.
“My auto club guarantees they’ll be there in 15 minutes, and you mean I can’t wait for them?” he said. “They can tow the other guy, but don’t tow me.”
Real-estate agent Tina Maddox was all for getting stalled cars off the road, but predicted disaster for the ordinance nevertheless. “Houstonians love their cars, and those tow-truck drivers better be careful,” she said. “Somebody’s going to get shot.”
Back on Highway 59, Gonzalez just wanted to get to a business meeting before it ended. “I wish a tow truck would have shown up in six minutes today,” he said. “I’d gladly pay the $75, just get me out of here.”