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Pa. not ready to cut cord on call boxes

| Monday, Aug. 13, 2012,
State trooper Mark Bernd gives instruction on how to use a call box on Tuesday, July 24, 2012 along the eastbound lanes of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Steph Anderson | Tribune-Review
Usage of emergency call boxes on the Pennsylvania Turnpike has dropped about 88 percent over the past 10 years, according to state officials. Steph Anderson | Tribune-Review
Steph Anderson | Tribune-Review
Usage of emergency call boxes on the Pennsylvania Turnpike has dropped about 88 percent over the past 10 years, according to state officials.
State Trooper Mark Bernd gives instruction on how to use a call box on Tuesday, July 24, 2012 along the eastbound lanes of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Steph Anderson | Tribune-Review

Call box No. 81.9 stands alone on the Pennsylvania Turnpike between New Stanton and Donegal as cars and tractor-trailers rumble past.

Its nicks and scratches are battle scars of more than 20 years serving motorists facing highway emergencies.

However, use of the bright yellow boxes reached an all-time low this year, largely because so many people carry cell phones, according to state Turnpike Commission records.

Even though many states are eliminating the boxes as cost-cutting measures, Pennsylvania officials say they do not plan to remove the 1,018 boxes that stand at one-mile intervals along the turnpike's 562 miles.

Commission records show calls dropped 88 percent from the system's peak usage in the early 2000s — when it handled more than 19,000 calls a year — to 2,307 calls last year.

“What we've seen is a dramatic reduction in the last decade or more because we've seen a proliferation of cell phone service,” commission spokesman Bill Capone said. “It really started to drop in 2008.”

About 88 percent of Americans own cell phones, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

How they work

The boxes don't offer voice-to-voice communication.

Instead, users can press one of four buttons labeled service, police, medical or accident. That sends a radio signal to a central call center in Highspire, near Harrisburg.

Turnpike radio operators at the call center dispatch the appropriate tow company, ambulance or state trooper to the call box location.

Although fewer people are using the call boxes, Capone said calls to the turnpike's *11 cell phone service line increased about 2 12 percent in the past year.

Drivers also can dial 511 or 911 on cell phones to reach the turnpike's dispatch center, Capone said.

Some frequent turnpike travelers say they sometimes forget the boxes exist.

“Whenever there's construction, they put up signs saying there's no call boxes for six miles,” said Bernard Neuwrith, a Robinson resident who travels the turnpike regularly to visit his grandchildren in New Jersey. “Here I am driving with white knuckles wondering what am I going to do with no call boxes? I chuckle to myself.

“I think it's an archaic technology,” said Neuwrith, 63. “At one time, it had its place. It's time to move on.”

The cost

The $200,000 needed to operate the boxes each year — about $86.69 a call — comes from turnpike tolls, which continue to increase.

Last month, the Turnpike Commission approved a 10 percent toll increase for cash customers and 2 percent increase for E-ZPass users beginning Jan. 6.

But Trooper Mark Bernd of the New Stanton barracks said he has known the call boxes to rescue stranded motorists, some of whom carried cell phones that were useless.

“People who travel across country or across the state can run into a couple different problems,” he said. “(They can face) poor cell phone coverage, where they are not able to place a call out or if they're on the cell phone a lot, (they) have a low battery and can't make a call out.”

The 28 miles between the Oakmont and New Stanton turnpike service plazas keep Mark Magill of Magill's Towing in Monroeville hustling to supply gas, change tires and tow wrecked cars. Most days, he said, he gets one or two calls for service from call boxes along that stretch.

“The younger people don't use it as much,” Magill said. “Elderly people use it all the time. A lot just don't have cell phones.

“They're really great, especially in the wintertime. If you don't have your cell phone and your car breaks down and you have no heat in your car, what are you going to do? You might have to walk a quarter of a mile, but you're at least going to get someone to help you.”

Across the nation

Only Hawaii, Florida and Pennsylvania have statewide emergency call box systems on major roadways, according to inquiries sent to highway agencies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.Like Pennsylvania, Florida recorded a major decline in usage. Calls dropped 59 percent from 22,051 in 2004 to 9,001 in 2011, records show.

Montana has one call box — on Beartooth Highway, the gateway to Yellowstone National Park.

New Hampshire never had them, but “with cell phones, they're somewhat moot anyway,” spokesman Bill Boynton said.

Louisiana and New Jersey decommissioned and removed call boxes years ago to cut maintenance expenses.

But for the time being, Capone said the boxes, operational since 1991, will remain in Pennsylvania.

“In our way of thinking, it's just another level of service,” he said.

Amanda Dolasinski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6220 or adolasinski@tribweb.com.

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