OAKLAND, CA — The Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Service Authority for Freeways and Expressways (MTC SAFE) this week began a three-month project to remove 500 of the distinctive yellow call boxes along Bay Area highway roadsides and replace them with white-on-blue signs advising motorists who need assistance to call 511. The move is the latest in a series of removals that have reduced the size of the call box network from 3,500 units in the early 2000s to 2,200 today. Due largely to the proliferation of personal cell phones, the number of assistance calls generated by the call box network has plunged to 15,000 per year from a high of 98,000 per year in 2001.
“With the change in the way people communicate, we expect the call box network to shrink to about 1,000 units over the next few years,” explained MTC SAFE project manager Jaime Maldonado. “The next step will be to remove call boxes entirely from one urban corridor and then evaluate the impact before making further changes. Eventually, we may move away from call boxes altogether, and use the savings to enhance other highway operations systems such as establishing communication protocols with vehicle telematics, or expanding the use of closed-circuit TV and other technologies to improve incident detection and response.”
MTC SAFE expects to retain call boxes for at least the next several years on Bay Area toll bridges, in highway tunnels, and in rural parts of the region—particularly those in areas with poor or nonexistent cell phone coverage. Contractors began the latest round of call box removals and sign installations along Interstate 80 in Solano County. Work will advance first to other highways in urbanized portions of Solano County, and then to routes in Marin and Sonoma counties. The remaining network of call boxes in the urban Bay Area will total about 500 units spaced at roughly two-mile intervals.
Motorists who need assistance in non-emergency situations (car stalled, flat tire, out of gas, etc.) can use cell phones to access the same dispatch call center to which the call boxes are connected. Simply call 511 and say “Freeway Assist” or “Freeway Aid” at the first prompt. The 511 system will connect callers with an operator who will determine the motorist’s location, and provide appropriate roadside assistance service.
MTC is the regional transportation planning, financing and coordinating agency for the nine-county region.
John Goodwin: (415) 778-5262
Randy Rentschler: (415) 778-6780