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Tow trucks gave upscale Mpls. area a pass, again

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Winter parking
Cars park on the odd side of the street in Minneapolis, during a snow emergency on Feb. 24, 2014.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

The city of Minneapolis towed more than 1,500 cars during its first snow emergency of the season, which began Saturday. But none of those vehicles were towed from the southwest corner of the city. 

Most of the cars towed came from a few hotspots. City Council Ward 3 led the pack with more than 400 tows. That ward includes part of the area around the University of Minnesota, which was mobbed with football fans Sunday afternoon for the Vikings' game against the Chicago Bears.

Council Member Jacob Frey says the city could do a better job explaining its snow emergency parking rules to residents and visitors, but he doesn't mind that so many vehicles were towed from his ward.

"It could be that certain areas quite simply didn't have the same number of violations and therefore they didn't have the same number of tows," he said. "The 3rd Ward is leading the way on growth and vibrancy and density. So I don't think it's entirely surprising that we're also leading the way on tows following the snowstorm."

Other hotspots included Ward 5, in North Minneapolis, and Ward 10, which includes Uptown. Those three wards account for about a quarter of the city's population, but they saw more than half the tows.

Towed vehicles in Minneapolis Snow Emergency

  Day towed:   ●  Day 1, Saturday  ●  Day 2, Sunday  ●  Day 3, Monday Minneapolis Impound Lot indicated by the green arrow
Source: City of Minneapolis

Heidi Hamilton, deputy director of the Minneapolis Public Works Department, said city contractors tow cars strategically. "We focus our resources in the areas that have the most dense parking needs and the lowest compliance," she said. "It's in these areas where, if we don't enforce the snow emergency regulations, we will not be able to get in there later."

Minneapolis hires five companies to tow cars from different parts of the city. They get paid anywhere from $45 to $155 per car, based on a bidding process.

During snow emergencies, Minneapolis bans cars from about a third of its on-street parking spaces each day for three days. That allows the plows to clear all the roads effectively.

While densely populated areas saw the most towing, neighborhoods in far corners of the city saw hardly any. Hamilton said that's a function of geography.

"Another thing we try to do is maximize the number of vehicles we tow," she said, "and so the farther we get away from the impound lot, the fewer vehicles we can tow during a snow emergency."

She said that's one reason the city didn't tow a single car from the upscale neighborhoods of Ward 13, in southwest Minneapolis.

Council Member Linea Palmisano, who represents the area, said the lack of enforcement there is a problem.

"Please let it be known: Southwest wants their fair share of ticketing and towing during snow emergencies," she said.

Palmisano said she's seen about a dozen cars that haven't moved since the snow emergency, which means the city just had to plow around them. Last winter, many residents complained that illegally parked cars were making the streets difficult to navigate, she said.

The towing pattern during the most recent snow emergency is similar to one the Star Tribune reported following a storm in January 2014. At the time, some council members were also concerned that the city was creating a financial hardship for some of its poorest residents while giving some wealthier neighborhoods a free pass. A ticket and tow costs $180.

This month, the city received a three-year, $2.7 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to ensure that city services are provided fairly to all residents regardless of race. The city's application specifies that towing during snow emergencies is a topic of concern. 

Council Member Kevin Reich, who heads the Transportation and Public Works Committee, said he understands why the tow trucks need to focus their efforts. But he said the strategy can go too far.

"We cannot send the message that there are parts of the city that don't have to worry about compliance," he said. 

The Public Works Department said it targets different areas for each snow emergency to make sure people all over the city follow the rules. And towing is only part of the equation. Minneapolis also gave out almost 7,000 tickets during the year's first snow emergency — and some of those were in southwest Minneapolis. St. Paul gave out about half as many tickets, and towed 887 vehicles.