SF supervisors, MTA cut deal to reduce city’s towing charges

Original article appeared in SFGate

Written by Emily Green

The cost of retrieving a towed vehicle in San Francisco will drop by $111.25 — to $380 — under an agreement reached Thursday between the Board of Supervisors and the Metropolitan Transportation Agency. But drivers won’t want to get towed twice, because the fee shoots right back up the second time around.
The deal, which does not affect the additional cost of the underlying parking ticket, will bring the cost of being towed down to a level last seen in 2011. And for the first time, there will be an amnesty program so that low-income people may retrieve their vehicles for $294.

 The issue of tow charges arose because the MTA needs the supervisors to sign off on a $65.4 million, five-year contract extension with tow company AutoReturn. The supervisors said they wouldn’t approve the contract until the MTA submitted a plan to reduce the tow charges substantially. The cost had nearly tripled over the last decade.

MTA had proposed reducing the charges by $22.50, but the supervisors said that was too little.
The minimum cost of being towed is currently $491.25, not including the cost of a ticket, which normally runs between $68 and $100. If drivers don’t retrieve their car for several days, the cost can quickly add up to thousands of dollars because of storage fees.
The reduction will be primarily in the administrative fee — now $266 — the city charges drivers who are towed, and will cost the MTA around $3.5 million a year. Under the deal between the supervisors and the MTA, that fee will be reduced only once — it shoots back up for subsequent tows.
The administrative fee helps fund a variety of expenses not related to towing, including part of MTA Director Ed Reiskin’s salary. And it is a big part of the reason San Francisco’s tow charges are so high: In New York it costs $185 to retrieve a car, in Los Angles is costs $276 and in Chicago the price is $170. San Francisco’s new fee structure will place the total cost below Oakland, where the fees add up to $434.
The deal marks a major success for critics of the tow fees who say the charges are unduly burdensome for poor people, who risk losing their cars because they can’t pay the fees.
The low-income discount will apply to anyone who qualifies for a public-benefit program, such as Medi-Cal, low-income housing, the Healthy San Francisco program or the Section 8 housing voucher program. They will also have 48 hours to retrieve their vehicle before storage costs kick in. Currently, those costs begin accruing after four hours.
Supervisor John Avalos called the deal a victory for working families.
“I wish we could do more. But I am feeling really good about” the changes, he said. “One mistake could cost cost you the ability to pay for your rent. We wanted to minimize the impact of that mistake.”
Elisa Della-Piana, legal director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco, said “it’s really exciting to see some progress on this. I know how hard it is to come back from fees once they have been imposed and I am thrilled this kind of proposal is under consideration.”
The deal was negotiated between supervisors Avalos, Jane Kim and Aaron Peskin and MTA representatives. The MTA board still has to OK the deal at its meeting Tuesday. If it does, the changes and the AutoReturn contract will return to the Board of Supervisors for a vote.
Supervisor Scott Wiener has warned that reducing the tow charges will mean less funding for Muni. MTA representatives previously said it could impact their ability to provide free Muni travel for youth and seniors. They now say it won’t.
Whether that money will be back filled through the city’s general fund is yet to be decided, but Wiener said he would introduce such legislation.
MTA spokesman Paul Rose said the proposal “aims to lessen the burden on drivers who are towed and, if approved, we will determine how this impacts other services within our budget in the coming weeks.”
Avalos said he favored imposing a higher fee on new developments — legislation that the Board of Supervisors has passed but which Mayor Ed Lee said he would veto.