Call boxes a relic of the past

By Kathe Malouf
Special to the Sun

The roadside call boxes that have been in place along Kern County roadways are being removed by the same agency that installed them 25 years ago.

Citing declining usage and soaring maintenance costs, the Kern Council of Governments (Kern COG) began removing some of the 573 call boxes several years ago in and around the Metro Bakersfield area. Earlier this year, Kern COG, the local agency that oversees how transportation money is spent, made the decision to remove the remaining call boxes, including those that were located along the state routes in the Kern River Canyon and Kern Valley.

The call boxes were authorized in 1988, when Kern County voters agreed to pay a $1 fee on their vehicle registration to fund the Kern Motorists Aid Authority, said Ahron Hakimi, Executive Director with Kern COG. Initially, the funds were specifically earmarked and used for the roadside call boxes.

According to Becky Napier, Kern COG Deputy Director of Administration, the Kern Motorist Aid Authority’s call box program began in 1992, and a total of 573 call boxes were placed along all State Routes in Kern County, as well as along a section of the Tehachapi Willow Springs Road. Four call boxes were installed in the lower section of the Kern River Canyon, with additional call boxes placed along Highway 178 from Bakersfield to Ridgecrest.
The height of the call box system was around 1993-1994, when the usage was about 2,500 calls a month, according to Kern COG officials. While the call volume was extremely high during the first few years of the call box system, the usage has been declining recently due to the fact that most motorists now have cell phones. By 2015, there were approximately 500 call boxes in operation. Combined, their usage had dropped to roughly 4,000 to 5,000 calls per year.

“The call volume was down by approximately 90 percent over what it once was,” Hakimi said, adding that some call boxes were used frequently, while others would not be used for years.

According to data compiled by Kern COG, call box usage was on a steady decline.

In fiscal year 1992/93 there were 25,982 calls for service. In fiscal year 1993/94 there were 24,795 calls for service.
In fiscal year 2000/01 calls began dropping to 15,070 calls for service.
In fiscal year 2001/02 calls went down to 12,170 calls for service.
By calendar year 2016, calls for service had dropped to 1,630.

The 14 call boxes placed along Hwy. 178 were collectively used to make an average of 17 calls per month during 2016.

According to Napier, the majority of the calls made on the roadside call boxes were calls for assistance due to automobiles running out of gas or because of an automobile breakdown.

While call volume dropped, the cost of maintaining the 573 call boxes has been escalating. According to Hakimi, it was costing about $700,000 per year for all of the call boxes on the system. That cost included maintenance, cellular service and approximately $258,000 per year to the California Highway Patrol to monitor the calls.

“Over the past 20 years, the cost of the program has been more than simply paying a cell phone bill,” Hakimi said, noting that additional expenses come from the need to upgrade the technology of the phones, along with administration costs and replacement cost of equipment damaged by vehicle crashes, weather and vandalism.

The vehicle registration fees brought in approximately $800,000 per year for the call boxes, Kern COG officials said. And they weren’t spending it all.

While the money from the $1 vehicle registration fee was initially used for the roadside call boxes, in 2012, Kern County implemented the Kern 511 system, with funds from the Kern Motorists Aid Authority. Kern 511 is a free service that provides traffic conditions, transit information and road work information in the Kern County area by way of a toll-free phone number and website.

In 2013, another program was implemented, using funds from the same pot of Motorists Aid Authority money, when the Kern COG Directors shifted $250,000 for a litter cleanup program, using prison inmates and contracting with the Bakersfield Homeless Center to clean up litter from along highways in the Bakersfield area.

Hakimi said that in 2012, the Motorist Aid Authority had a reserve fund built up, but the reserve fund was being used to pay for all three programs – the litter removal, Kern 511 and the call boxes.

“We were spending more than what we had coming in,” Hakimi said.

By 2015, the Kern COG Board was advised that something had to change, as the $1 vehicle registration fee could no longer support all three programs. In May, 2015, Kern COG staff worked with CalTrans to develop a plan to remove call boxes in the Metro Bakersfield area, to keep vehicles from parking along the State Routes with the Metro Bakersfield area. Approximately 100 call boxes were removed, reducing the system to 462 call boxes. But, the cost savings was not enough, Hakimi said. In July of this year, the Kern COG Board voted to remove the remaining call boxes.

Hakimi said that the Board considered the safety aspect of the call boxes, but ultimately decided that they were too costly to maintain, and based on the number of calls coming in, the Board opted to shift the money from the call boxes to the litter removal program.

“The Board struggled with their decision and considered keeping the call boxes in the high volume routes. But they had to balance how much money was being spent and how much the call boxes were being used,” Hakimi said.
While some may question if litter clean up is a safety issue, Hakimi said Federal Highway Administration studies show that between 50 and 60 people a year are killed in litter, or debris-related accidents.

As of last week, Hakimi said they still had call boxes to remove, but officials expect to be finished removing the last of the call boxes by the end of the month.