Sunday, October 8, 2017

Tracking towing complaints on West Campus

By Avery Travis (Fall 2016 Final)

Tow trucks can often be seen rolling through the streets of West Campus, the small neighborhood adjacent to the University of Texas. But when Madison Yandell headed out to the parking lot of her condo to run errands like on any other day, she was shocked. Her car was gone from her own assigned spot.

“Knowing that I pay for that spot and that I was supposed to be parking there, and it belonged to me, and then having something like that happen is really frustrating,” said Yandell.

Data from the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation suggests that Yandell is not alone. Their records show that of the 556 complaints filed against towing companies in Austin since 2011, 98 of them were considered “without authority- illegal tows.”

Companies or individuals with towing and booting licenses must adhere to strict rules from the Texas Administrative Code when they perform their services.  If the tow doesn’t comply with the code found in Chapter 86, the victim of the tow or the department itself can file a complaint. They will then evaluate the claim and open an investigation. It could be an offense as simple as the sign on their truck not meeting the standards, or an illegal tow—where the company tows a car without the consent of the business or residential property or without any reason for the tow.

200 different companies and individuals have complaints filed against them, according to Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, or TDLR.

24 of the 98 “without authority- illegal tows” belong to local company TJ’s Towing Service, also known as J&J Towing.

J&J Towing owner Timothy Sapp defends his company, saying that they are ultimately trying to help consumers and property owners keep spots open for those who pay to park there.

“That is ultimately the root of our service, so that the people who have a legal right to park on a property have the ability to do so,” Sapp says

He says while it differs on a case-by-case basis, most business or residential properties allow the towing company to patrol the parking lots and tow at their discretion if they see a car without the proper authorization.

“The areas or properties that are more highly populated tend to opt for policies that call for patrolling by the company,” he says, “to get a higher level of service, to get more eyes on the property, and to make sure that the residents or the tenants have somewhere to park.”
Everybody makes mistakes?

J&J tows over 15,000 cars per year. Sapp says that his operation is the largest in the city and mistakes are bound to occur.

“We are dealing with humans on both sides who make errors...there’s human error with people forgetting to put their pass up and every once in a while there is human error with our driver missing a parking permit or maybe a sign getting knocked down so people didn’t have notice.”

The company has faced 61 different complaints in total—with only one of these investigations ending in disciplinary action. Some other claims include “lacks honesty/trustworthiness/integrity” and “didn’t tow in a safe, competent manner.”

The TDLR data shows only one case ending in disciplinary action being taken against J&J Towing.

Sapp says his company works with customers to mitigate the anger and frustration that comes with being towed or booted—especially if they were wrongfully towed.

“One of the reasons we are able to keep our ratio of complaints to confirmed violations so low is that we are always able to look at if our drivers made a mistake, admit our mistakes and try to work reasonable with people.”

Consumers who feel wronged filed 56 percent of the 556 total complaints against towing companies in Austin.  The rest come from inspections and TDLR itself. The most common reason for a complaint was issues with “signage,” with the “without authority- illegal tows” and “Criminal Activity” as a close second and third. Other common reasons for tow violations were issues with the ticketing, paperwork, the company’s license to operate, or the fact that they didn’t tow in a “safe, competent manner.”

Todd Forrester of TDLR says that every investigation is different, depending on the amount of solid evidence they have, as well as the location and circumstances of the tow.

He says that breaking any rule of the department can be grounds for a complaint.  He says that Austin Police Department can get complaints as well, in addition to those filed with the state department at TDLR.

The investigation could result in discipline for the accused company or individual—a penalty of as much as $8,500 or even the loss of their license. But the data only shows 30 cases of the 556 resulting in some sort of disciplinary action.

Yandell’s car was towed by Sapp’s company, J&J Towing, but she chose not to file a complaint or pursue action in court. She eventually got her money back, but she says their “mistake” cost her time, which is far more valuable.

“I really didn’t get any sort of explanation,” Yandell says. “They really put the responsibility on me and my property manager to make sure I got my car back and that I didn’t have to pay the towing fee.”

Fighting Back

TDLR says if you feel you were wrongfully towed, there are more options than just arguing with the towing company.

You can file a complaint with TDLR, which will result in the opening of an investigation into the incident, as well as the offending company or individual responsible for the towing. You can also take the case to your local Justice of the Peace precinct and fight the tow in two different hearings.

Forrester says the key is to get as much evidence to defend yourself as you can in court or to the department.

“Get pictures of every entrance to the apartment complex, every sign at the parking facility, where you were parked and how you were parked. If you can get pictures from the scene, get them.  Bring everything you can.”

He recommends also bringing copies of any parking receipts or your parking contract to prove that the spot rightfully belonged to you.

Click for interactive graphic
The first hearing is known as a “probable cause” hearing, where you can get your money back in full. The second is a statutory hearing to determine if the company broke the statute—this hearing can win you one thousand dollars, plus three times the cost of the tow.

“Both hearings combined,” Forrester, says, “you can get four times the cost of towing and a thousand dollars.

He says that most people just want the money back, don’t take the extra step further to attempt both hearings, or even to file the TDLR complaint.  But the TDLR investigation can actually punish the company if the investigation finds the company at fault, which could prevent another wrongful tow for someone in the future.

“I recommend still filing a complaint with us. These are our licensees, and we need to know what they are doing. If they are towing cars illegally, we need to know about it.”

You can check out the data used in this project at:!/vizhome/TowingDraft/WrongfulTowing.

This data comes from the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation.  This data only considers “tow” licensees.  Some tow companies and individuals operate under the label of VSF’s, or vehicle storage facilities, which are not included in this data.

African-American Engineering Students Want Shrinking UT Enrollment Figured Out

By Louise Rodriguez (Spring 2017 Final)

Jade Jackson and Faith Carter think in terms of numbers just about every day. As engineering students at the University of Texas at Austin for the past four years, their work has involved solving complicated math concepts. But a lingering problem confuses Jackson and Carter: the flagging enrollment rate of African-American students, particularly that of women, in the Cockrell School of Engineering.

“I remember looking at the numbers and it doesn’t make sense—there were about 40 black women total (at Cockrell),” said Jackson, reflecting on a previous year in the program.
For the past two decades, African-American undergraduate enrollment at the University of Texas’ Cockrell School of Engineering has dropped from 4.5 percent of total undergraduates in 1996 to 2 percent in 2016. At a time when the Oscar-nominated film “Hidden Figures” has inspired students, particularly African-American girls, to consider science, technology, engineering and math careers, UT’s winnowing proportion of African-American female students at Cockrell—from 1.6 percent of total engineering undergrads in 1996 to just under 0.7 percent this year—has left minority students like seniors Jackson and Carter questioning administrators and UT’s recruitment efforts.

UT isn’t unique—Texas A&M and the University of Houston engineering programs also experienced declines in the shares of African-American female students between 1996 and 2016, each currently under one percent of total undergraduates. Enrollment of African-American male students at all three engineering programs also decreased.

For Carter who’s studying petroleum engineering at UT, which is top-ranked in US News and World Report, the stress of being one of only two female black students in her program for all four years, she said, has sometimes been almost unbearable. Carter said it’s been hard to fit into the mainly homogenous culture of petroleum engineering, a largely male-dominated industry historically called “the old white boys club.”

“I was just experiencing so much racism,” she said. “It was honestly horrible.”

Carter described an incident in a required class at Cockrell when her professor, in front of scores of students, walked up to where she was seated in the front row and dropped a stack of turned-in homework assignments on the classwork she was doing. She said he wanted her to organize the papers.

“The whole class starts laughing,” said Carter.

Humiliated and fighting tears, she said she approached the instructor after class to get an explanation, but was met with defensiveness and denial of any racial intent. Her parting words to him that day were to never do that sort of thing again.

Carter and Jackson said a constant stream of micro-aggressions—intentional or unintentional verbal or behavioral racial slights—like these occur at Cockrell but it is frustrating to get others to notice them.   

“When you have those types of experiences and you tell someone who is not black, you’ll sound crazy because they’ll think that you’re overreacting,” said Jackson.

Women in Engineering Director Tricia Berry said that UT, in general, has a history of being unwelcoming to minority groups. Her job is to try and correct this reality by recruiting and retaining women and underrepresented minorities at Cockrell. Berry’s office works alongside Cockrell’s Equal Opportunity in Engineering (EOE) program, which identifies high school students across the state who may be eligible to attend their on-campus My Introduction to Engineering summer program or other weekend events throughout the school year.

One of EOE’s visions is for underrepresented minority groups in the program to approach the current 12-percent share that represents all college-age African-American students in the Texas. For Enrique Dominguez, EOE director, the goal right now is to get as many minority students as possible to apply.

Hispanic engineering enrollment rates have fared better at UT, rising and falling between 1996 and 2016 to settle at roughly 15 percent of total engineering undergraduates at Cockrell. American Indian and Hawaiian and Pacific Islander enrollment during that time remained under 0.5 percent.

Although the EOE program does minority outreach to schools across the state and has raised the number of applicants over the years, EOE states that when UT admissions takes over, a good portion of recruits is cast off.

“What happens is, we get all these students excited and then they go through the admissions process and it’s essentially cut down to a quarter,” said Dominguez.

Breaking the UT admissions ceiling for some academically unprepared students can be difficult. Dominguez counsels Cockrell students to not view unpreparedness as synonymous with “less than” and reminds them that they deserve to be at the school.

Jackson and Carter have spoken out to Cockrell administrators about the low representation of African-American students at the school and about discrimination they said they’ve encountered there, and eventually decided to survey African-American engineering students. Results of the survey, Carter said, showed a majority either experienced racism by a professor or felt singled out in class.

To address these issues, a task force comprised of Cockrell School administrators, faculty and students formed shortly afterward. Although the Diversity Action Task Force’s intent was to improve inclusion of African-American students in the school, Carter was disappointed when, she said, administrators made it immediately clear that issues related to African-American students would not be the sole focus of the team.

Circumstances must be just right for African-Americans to be accepted into an engineering program like Cockrell, explained Carter. Her own journey, like that of Jackson’s, was influenced by dedicated and savvy parents who molded their children into above average students.

“A lot of the black students in engineering come from families like ours. Both their parents are engineers or are scientists,” said Carter. “You have to have had an insane backdrop, some insane support system.”

Attracting those “highly sought-after” female African-American students who qualify to attend Cockrell, said Berry, pits UT against schools like MIT and Georgia Tech. She said EOE’s goal is to get as many women and minorities they can to attend Cockrell and then support them through the program.

Inequities stem from the early years of a child’s education, said Jackson, who is the local chapter president of the National Society Black Engineers. Her parents had to fight to get her admitted to their public elementary school’s gifted and talented program. Later, when she entered high school, she noticed a dichotomy at play. Inside her school’s advanced placement (AP) classrooms, Jackson said she was usually the only black student. She explained that while her predominantly white Pearland, Texas, school district was well-funded, she said some other Texas school districts today fall financially short.

“To even apply to be in engineering in UT, you have to be taking certain classes. You have to be calculus-ready to be prepared for math and science,” said Jackson. AP classes train students well, but Jackson said many poor districts in Texas lack resources to provide AP offerings.

Berry added that poorly funded rural Texas high schools sometimes have to get by with scheduling physics classes every other year, making it even harder for students to experience engineering or be exposed to an unfamiliar career path, like engineering.

Improving opportunities for younger African-American students is a life goal for Jackson, who said her career plans include leading a Fortune 500 company and starting an educational nonprofit. Her mission is to make students more competitive by working with them from an early age, when the type of student they will eventually become starts to take shape.

University of Texas fails to meet campus parking demands

By Taylor Jackson Buchanan (Spring 2017 Final project)

Des’ree Flores walks through a parking lot toward her black Toyota Yaris. It’s 6:15 p.m. on a Thursday evening in September. “Sucks for those people,” she thinks. A tow truck slowly leaves the lot with a vehicle hitched to the back.

Click for interactive graphic
As she continues, the senior chemistry major at The University of Texas mulls over recent purchases – textbooks, tuition and a parking permit. She’s used to the “back to school” bank account squeeze and budgets carefully to afford each expense. But something is wrong. As she approaches her car, she sees an unanticipated “stupid little red tag” flapping on the windshield.

“My blood started to boil. I was so mad,” Flores said. “I saw the fine – $70 – and I was like, ‘Son of a b----! Are you kidding me?’”

Seventy-two hours before the first home football game of 2016, the university began ticketing and towing cars to make room for game day parking. However, Flores said she did not receive advance notice or see signage placed by the university. For this driver and many others – including faculty, staff and visitors – ticketing and towing for event parking is just one indication of a larger parking problem.

The urban university’s limited real estate for parking is competitive. For the few parking spots that do exist, permits are sold in excess – resulting in revenue for Parking and Transportation Services (PTS) and a strain on the 70,000 individuals who access the university on a daily basis.

For the 2016-17 school year, the university offered the fewest number of parking spaces in a decade and sold more permits than ever before. PTS sold well over 40,000 parking permits, 5,000 more than last year. At just over 15,000 spaces, permit holders lost 700 parking places from the previous year.

One number that didn’t take a hit? Revenue. PTS collected more than $17 million in permit sales and citation fees combined, the largest amount ever gathered at the school.

“PTS is a break-even department,” said Dennis Delaney, assistant director of events and operations. Parking revenue supports operations, including over $7 million in debt service for parking garages and over $1.5 million which supports the University, according to Cindy Posey, also with PTS. This includes funding for UTPD, faculty/staff access to Cap Metro and campus security initiatives like SURE walk.

Prices for parking permits are set by a committee and approved a faculty council, the Vice President of University Operations, the President of the University and the Board of Regents. In order to set these prices, the committee reviewed downtown Austin rates and the rates of peer institutions. At the time of the study, parking for faculty/staff in a garage was $34 (currently $40) and the parking rates for nearby garages just north of the downtown area ran between $60 and $162. At the same time, surface parking at UT for students was $120 (now $133) while at peer institutions, pricing ranged from a low of $115 to a high of $485. Despite the study, faculty and administrator input, the student perspective was not incorporated.

“Students aren’t rich,” Flores said. “We’re all broke. They’re gouging students with their ridiculous fines and fees.”

Flores submitted an appeal to request that the university waive her $70 parking citation in September. It was denied, and a financial bar was placed on Flores’ account that prevented her from registering for classes until she paid the fine. This is not the only academic hurdle she’s faced due to parking woes.

Flores purchased a C parking permit – a general surface permit for students – for $127. The university oversold these permits so that nearly eight students compete for every one space reserved for C permit holders.

“There have been times when I’ve been 40 minutes late to class because I can’t by any means find a parking spot,” Flores said. “I’ve even been so late that I decide it’s not even worth going to class. Like, there’s 10 minutes left. What’s the point?”

PTS oversells nearly every type of permit. Between six and seven University of Texas employees compete for every one parking space reserved for faculty and staff surface and garage permit holders. For individuals with disabilities, ADA accessible parking is competitive as well. These permits are oversold at nearly two passes to one space.

“[The current number of parking spaces] seems to work, since there has not been a day when all of the spaces on the campus have been filled,” Delaney said. He added: “The spaces might not be right outside of the building people want to park in, but spaces on campus have been open and available.”

Indeed, a handful of parking spaces on campus remain empty at times. O and F99 – permits exclusively for administrators and deans – are sold at close to a 1 to 1 ratio, almost guaranteeing that administrators and deans have a place to park. Out of the dozens of permits offered, only one pass is undersold. Athletics faculty and staff who hold a coveted F21 permit actually have about two spaces allotted for every one pass.

“It feels like the University prioritizes athletics,” Flores said. “I don’t park just to go to a game. I need to park to go to class. It’s really frustrating and it makes me feel like they see that as more important than us getting an education.”

Out of every football team in the NCAA, the UT Longhorns have been considered the most valuable for seven years in a row, according to Forbes. During the 2015-16 season, the football team brought in nearly $128 million in revenue (pocketing just under $100 million in profit). No other college team comes close to being as profitable.

To meet demand, the University continues to build facilities on campus. Within the year, PTS plans to open two garages to supplement the current parking inventory. With the addition of the East Campus Parking Garage and Rowling Hall, the university will gain 2,400 spaces. “Our goal remains to be in the 15,000-16,000 space range, but most of these spaces will eventually be garage based,” Delaney said.

Delaney is a Certified Administrator of Public Parking – one of only 300 worldwide. The university has two CAPPs and over 150 years of combined experience in parking. “PTS is highly respected throughout the parking industry,” Delaney said. The University of Texas’ chapter was named the 2016 Parking Organization of the Year by the International Parking Institute.

“The University is land locked in an urban environment,” Delaney said. “There is a reason that permits exist and that there is a cost to park on campus.”