Federal grant offers free tows to stranded motorists

Safe Clear program to expand to Harris, neighboring counties

HOUSTON – Millions of dollars are headed to Houston to help tackle our traffic problem.

The federal grant means your car will be towed for free if you break down or stall on a busy freeway. But it also means Houston's controversial Safe Clear program will expand to Harris and other neighboring counties.

Keeping drivers safe and Houston freeways clear is what Safe Clear is all about.

"We want to get the vehicles off the roadways quickly and efficiently," former Houston Mayor Bill White said.

When White created the program in 2005 he made tows free for stranded drivers. Wreckers were paid by the city. But in 2011, Houston ran out of money.

"Safe Clear can no longer be free to the public," then-Houston Mayor Annise Parker said.

Fast forward five years and Houston has hit the proverbial jackpot. The Houston area won an $8 million grant from the Federal Highway Program -- money Houston will use to tow stalled vehicles off freeways so drivers don't have to foot the bill.

"We really think that this is a service that will save time, money and lives," Alan Clark, with the Houston Galveston Area Council, said. 

He said Harris County will get a piece of the pie next.

But the process of selecting the tow companies who will get the money is tricky.

In May, KPRC Channel 2 News exposed USA Auto, a Houston Safe Clear company, for allegedly using the program to snag unsuspecting motorists, and charge them excessive bills for little or no work to vehicles.

The acting owner, Richard Gonzalez, was allowed into the program even with a criminal record that included insurance fraud and felony theft.

After our story, Gonzalez and four of his employees were arrested and indicted with organized criminal activity. His Safe Clear contract canceled.

But Mayor Sylvester Turner wouldn't commit to rebidding and doing a thorough review of all of the companies in the program.

"I can't tell you whether or not it's going to be rebid," he said. "I know there is about $23 million we can pull down from the feds, and a lot will depend on what happens there.

The city got the money -- with no review of the companies.

"How do you make sure those companies that are included are clear or safe?" consumer expert Amy Davis asked Clark.

"The first thing is to make sure that no bad actors get into the barrel, so to speak," he said.

The selection and screening process will be up to each city and county that participates.

That could take months. But Clark said it will be worth the wait to not have to wait in traffic.

"We really think that this is a service that a lot of people will appreciate, and will save time, money and lives," Clark said.

Clark added that free tows should be offered on Houston freeways sometime in early 2017.

In the meantime, Gonzalez and his four employees indicted in the towing scandal earlier this year are set to appear in court at the end of January. They are all still awaiting trial. 

About the Authors: