FREE TOWS RETURN TO HOUSTON FREEWAYS
Stranded freeway motorists on Monday morning found themselves with a new option to get out of the way in Houston, courtesy of local transportation officials.
Houston-Galveston Area Council officials announced the start of the Gulf Coast Regional Tow and Go Program, which allows for tows free of charge off Houston freeways for stranded motorists. With approval from police, a tow truck can be dispatched to move the vehicle to a safe location, up to one mile away.
“Traffic is one of the biggest concerns for Houston-area residents,” said David Fink, manager of H-GAC’s regional incident management program. “Hours spent in heavy congestion caused by stalled vehicles not only impact productivity and the environment but can put lives at risk.”
The program is available only on freeways within Houston city limits, but officials plan to expand it to elsewhere in Harris County later this year or early 2019, and then to surrounding counties as more funding and agreements with local officials allows.
“Hopefully every six month we’ll get another county on,” Fink said.
Most vehicles, including motorcycles, that are stranded by running out of gas and other mechanical failures are eligible for the program. Trailers will be towed where possible. If the vehicle is stranded by a flat tire, and a spare is available, the tow truck driver will tow the vehicle to a safe location and change the tire at no cost.
Tows must be authorized by a law-enforcement official, either at the scene or at TranStar’s offices, where officials watch traffic in real-time.
Cost of the tows is covered by federal and state funds aimed at traffic congestion and safety. Fink said the program is included in current and upcoming spending plans, meaning the program will be free of charge for at least the next decade.
Officials quietly started offering free tows in May as part of a live test of the program. During the trial, Fink said, clearance times along freeways — the average time from when an incident is reported until it is cleared — dropped to 16 minutes, from 21 minutes in May 2017.
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Stalled vehicles are the most common traffic hazard along area roadways. Excluding incidents involving heavy trucks, three-quarters of freeway incidents are stalled vehicles, according to Houston TranStar, which monitors highway conditions.
Within Houston, officials expect about 2,400 free tows per month.
“We figure the numbers will tic up with the advertising campaign that will start next week,” Fink said.
To make people aware, officials plan a public-awareness blitz that includes changeable message signs along freeways and paid ads on radio and television.
“You will see it everywhere,” said Kim Padgett of The Padgett Group, who is helping with media and public outreach.