REGION — Currently 1,279 call boxes are along the sides of freeways and nonfreeway state highways in San Diego County. That number will be reduced to 379 next year.
A 14-0 San Diego Association of Governments board vote Oct. 27, with five cities not having a representative present at the time of the vote, approved the elimination of all call boxes in urban areas and a reduction of call boxes in rural areas from 564 to 379. When the call boxes are replaced the posts will remain and a sign informing motorists of the option to call 511 for roadside assistance will be placed on many of those poles.
Several factors merited the reduction of call boxes. The most noticeable of those is the reduction in the volume of calls. Call box volume peaked at 140,000 calls in 1993, but the use of cell phones and the implementation of SANDAG’s freeway service patrol and other free motorist aid services have reduced the number of annual calls to an estimated 11,000 for 2017.
The safety issue of motorists walking alongside a freeway or rural highway to call boxes, which currently are placed two-tenths of a mile apart, was also a factor. Some call boxes have been vulnerable to being knocked down multiple times, and expenses to replace the poles will be reduced if no call box is included.
An analysis to determine whether the removal of call boxes would create more of an impact on minority or other low-income populations determined that cell phone ownership among adults is high regardless of income or minority status. The assessment of the region’s call box service determined that motorists on rural highways are more dependent on call boxes due to gaps in cellular phone coverage on some rural routes.
The freeway service patrol program includes roving tow trucks which travel along the county’s urban highways during peak commute periods. The assistance includes providing a minimal amount of gas to motorists with empty tanks, changing flat tires and towing inoperable vehicles at no charge to the motorist. Data from both 511 and call box calls indicated that the volume of calls placed from Interstate 805 and Interstate 5 south of Interstate 8 is highest during the mid-day period when the freeway service patrol is not available. During Fiscal Year 2016-17 the southern I-805 and I-5 corridors had a monthly average of 123 midday assists while all other corridors averaged 94 mid-day assists per month.
The reduced operation and maintenance expenses from the decrease in call boxes will fund expanded midday freeway patrol service on the southern I-805 and I-5 corridors to ensure that no social inequity impacts result from the removal of the call boxes.
The call boxes are scheduled to be removed in summer 2018. The roadway signage program will provide 345 fixed signs on call box poles noting the availability of the 511 number for motorist assistance.
The motorist aid program which includes the call boxes, the 511 travel information and motorist assistance systems, the freeway service patrol and a regional helicopter (which can also be used for aerial firefighting when necessary) is funded by a surcharge on vehicle registration fees.