By Ben Simmoneau
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - In this age of the iPhone, many states are removing outdated emergency call boxes from the sides of highways, but that’s not the case in Pennsylvania where the CBS 3 I-Team found the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission plans to keep spending hundreds of thousands of dollars maintaining theirs even though very few drivers use them.
A report obtained by the I-Team found the turnpike’s call boxes were activated a total of 830 times in the first six months of this year, a period when 100 million drivers used the road. That is a steep decline from the year 2000 when 18,818 drivers used them. The Turnpike Commission spends at least $200,000 per year to maintain the call boxes which means each use this year cost toll payers $120.
What’s more, the commission also could not say for sure if all those drivers who used a call box actually had no other way of communicating. Officials with the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which oversees the Atlantic City Expressway, found many people who used call boxes along that roadway also called for help on a cell phone.
All this comes amidst increased scrutiny of the Turnpike Commission’s finances. A transportation funding plan passed five years ago has forced the Turnpike to rack up billions in debt – it’s more than $7 billion in the red today – which is being passed on to drivers in the form of increased tolls year after year.
“Keeping the system in place is the right decision right now,” said Pennsylvania Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo. “What if you break down in the middle of the night? What if your cell phone battery is dead? What if you lost your cell phone?”
Most drivers today might expect to find a phone inside one of the call boxes, but they would be mistaken. The boxes, originally installed along the turnpike in 1988, provide only a series of four buttons – service, accident, police, medical – which drivers can use to signal for help. Pressing one of those buttons sends a radio signal to the Turnpike’s dispatch center. Drivers cannot actually speak with anyone through a call box.
“It’s one step above a hamster in a wheel in my opinion,” said Kevin Rehmann, spokesman for the South Jersey Transportation Authority whose call boxes were similar in design to the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s. “This is obsolete in my view. It’s antique technology.”
The SJTA made the decision this summer to remove call boxes along the Atlantic City Expressway. With the widespread availability of cell phones, the Authority found very few drivers used them, and the boxes were becoming increasingly expensive to repair or replace.
“One of these little devils, costs about $10,000 to replace the whole thing,” Rehmann said.
Pennsylvania State Representative Tony Payton says he’s never seen anyone use a call box in his frequent drives between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, and he believes they’ve outlived their usefulness.
“I think [$200,000] is an exorbitant amount of money to pay for an antiquated system,” he said. “The turnpike needs to look at ways to aggressively save money and this is one of the ways you’d consider low hanging fruit.”
In its long-range capital plan, the Pennsylvania Turnpike also has nearly a million dollars budgeted to refurbish the call box system, starting in 2016. Spokesman Carl DeFebo admitted that money will likely never be spent.
“That money is programmed in there for now, but we may never get there. It could be that we might not need to make that investment,” he said. “There’s going to come a day when we don’t need them anymore.”