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Originally published March 12, 2013 at 8:40 PM | Page modified March 12, 2013 at 8:40 PM

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Tow-rate crackdown does U-turn

Turns out the tow-truck industry is the big winner in legislation that started out as a crackdown against sky-high towing fees.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Sounds like the Tow Truck companies paid off the sponsor of the bill. MORE
Danny, This would be a much better article if the reader had a link to see how our... MORE
Par for the course by the idiots in Olympia. MORE

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When state lawmakers held a hearing last month on a bill to crack down on our sky’s-the-limit towing fees, the tow-truck industry, as expected, turned out in force.

Only, they came to say how wonderful the bill is.

“You would be doing us no favors to oppose this bill,” the tow-truck drivers’ Olympia lobbyist told surprised lawmakers. “We urge you to pass it.”

Later a different lobbyist told me: “Take a close look at that bill. When the ones being regulated come out that strongly in favor, something is going on.”

Yes, something is. And that something is that the tow truckers are doing doughnuts around the politicians.

All of this started in 2011, when a guy got socked with an $800 bill after his car was impounded out of a Capitol Hill lot. Yes, he had parked illegally, and yes, he deserved to be towed. But $800?

Then came horror stories of even gougier bills, as high as $1,400. City officials and state lawmakers vowed to cap towing rates, which in Wild West fashion could be jacked as high as the tow truckers desired.

“They could put it at a million dollars if they wanted to,” a state trooper told me.

Last fall, Seattle passed the state’s first rate cap for impounds from private lots. With the city cap set at $183 per hour, it meant the $800 tow would have cost $490 with taxes and other storage charges included. That’s better, but still a dear sum compared with say, New York or Minneapolis, which charge around $200 or less flat rate.

The tow-truck industry sued Seattle over that ordinance anyway. The suit is pending.

In Olympia, meanwhile, the industry realized it would rather have a statewide cap on its rates than scramble around challenging dozens of local ordinances, city by city.

The key is the rate. And in House Bill 1625, tow truckers negotiated $244 per hour, plus $62 a day for storage — figures that are 33 to 50 percent higher than what Seattle’s new ordinance allows.

It means that under this bill, the infamous $800 tow would still have been $700, all fees and taxes included. That’s more than five times what New York City allows.

No wonder the tow truckers love this reform. It doesn’t do anything to them!

In fact, the rates set in the bill are higher than what’s currently charged in some parts of the state. Meaning if the bill passes — it cleared the House and is pending in the Senate — those tow operators can boost their rates and say, “Don’t blame us, the state told us to do it.”

Uncanny how all that outrage about tow-truck fees got massaged into this: a law that cements high rates statewide. I bow down to you, tow truckers. You hauled away that political threat as cleanly as if it were a car double-parked at Seafair.

Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, the bill’s prime sponsor, reminded me that his bill will end some truly rapacious gouging, such as when Citywide Towing charged $650 an hour. That’s true.

But I reminded him that he started out pushing for a $250 flat rate for tows. That would have been real consumer relief. And it’s not unthinkably low. In New York City, of all places, a private impound costs you only $125.

“If we went for the perfect, we wouldn’t have a bill at all,” Pollet said.

Probably true. But that’s just another way of saying: Well played, tow truckers. Well played.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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