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Are Roadside Call Boxes Necessary or Outdated?

September 27, 2011 1:18 p.m.

Funding for roadside call boxes has nearly doubled in the past 10 years. Do you use a call box or has the availability of cellphones made them obsolete?


Lorie Zapf - San Diego City Council Member, District 6

Related Story: Are Roadside Call Boxes Necessary or Outdated?


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Usership down, price tag up. Do we still need San Diego's freeway call box system? Governor Jerry Brown considers legislation regarding the HPV vaccine. This is KPBS Midday Edition.
I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Tuesday, September 27th. Today's top story on Midday Edition, when you need a freeway call box, they are priceless. Case in point, San Diego police say a Hillcrest woman used a freeway call box just last night to get help after being kidnapped and dumped on the side of the road. But there's no denying that with the rise of cellphone, call box usership has declined. As reported today in the San Diego Union Tribune, usage is down by 90% in the last ten years. While at the same time, the cost of maintaining the boxes has nearly doubled. Concerned citizens and politicians are asking should we be paying so much? And more pointedly, should we abandon the freeway call box system entirely? Joining me is Lori, San Diego City Council member from District six. Thank you for coming in.
ZAPF: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: We want to ask our listeners, is it time to get rid of freeway call boxes? You can give us a call with your questions, opinions, comments, at 1-888-895-5727. Or you can tweet your comment at KPBS Midday Edition
Lorie Zapf as a member of the board of San Diego safe, in addition to being a counsel woman, you sit on the board that sort of over sees the call box system in San Diego. Have you expressed -- what are your reservations? You have expressed some about the roadside call box program.
>> Well, it's not that I have a problem with the call boxes. It's the way that the administration of the program and the bureaucracy that's involved -- and really just how much money that it's costing to implement and keep this call box system going. And so what I have a problem with is actually the structure and the amount of money that's being taken in versus what it actually costs to run the program
CAVANAUGH: Now, what we heard in this -- what we saw in the UT article today, the usership of the call boxes has drastically declined in the past ten years. Yet the maintenance fees, at least what we're paying the person who over sees the maintenance fees have almost doubled. How has that happened?
ZAPF: Well, we contract with an outside company. And this happened in the late 90s. And so it's just continued down this track. So we've paid this company, and their fee as doubled in the last ten years, but it's actually going up every single year projected to go up. And actually that was approved by the board on this budget to go up every single year for the next, I believe, 5, 6, 7 years. And so I asked in that meeting, I said I don't understand this. I see on the budget that about half of the call boxes are slated to be torn out in the next two years. So how is it that your fee, how you can justify your fee going up every single year for the next 6, 7 years? And he answered, well, it's based on the -- you know, price it costs of living. And all that. And I said really. Isn't it based on the amount of work you do? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, I said since we are collecting about 3, 4 times the amount every year that it costs to run this organization, why are we just stockpiling money when there's so many needs out there? I am just very opposed to stockpiling moneys that we collect from people when we can't spend it.
CAVANAUGH: Indeed. The question of how much of a reserve fund that the San Diego service authority for freeway emergencies, that's what Safe stands there, there's a surplus of over $12 million of unspent funds in this program. Is that what you're referring to with the money coming in, and yet you're not spending it on the kind of maintenance that it used to take when you had more call boxes and now you have fewer?
ZAPF: Exactly. And our reserve is about 15 times higher than the annual operation cost. And the call box center -- let me backtrack. If anyone calls from a call box, it is a cellphone. So it is a cell at the transmission. So you're paying for the cellular service as well as a call box answer center. That's outsourced. So when you dial from a call box, it goes to this center. Now, they've also expanded and added -- you see on the freeways 511, call 511. Well, if you call 511, and I just did it on my way here just to make sure I was up-to-date on it, you get 17 different prompts. You can call 511 and get everything from traffic information, airport, border and roadside assistance. So one of the prompts of all of them, you know, is for Safe. So when they say we have 6,000 call ace year to 511, it could be for any number of things. And so if you just take the cost of the call box answer center, and the cellular service, that's about 100 and $40,000 a year. Just 100 and 40,000. We're collecting about 2.8 million a year 'cause every time somebody registers their car, and some families have two cars, three cars, $1 goes into that fund
CAVANAUGH: And what can those funds be used for? Can they be moved around for other sorts of uses within the city, let's say? Or are they dedicated?
ZAPF: Well, there are definitely restrictions, but I've read the legislation that started this, and it is a little vague. Safe give it is away some grants, I think it's $40,000 grants, and it's, like, every two years, and they're giving them to rural fire agencies and so forth. So we're spending a little money on grants. They spent some money on the helicopter, for the county helicopter, so if they make a rescue on a highway, the Safe helps fund some of that. So it is spending money. And I think money well spent on some of these other services. Some of them I think are a stretch. But that doesn't mean that they're not -- useful.
ZAPF: So what David Alvarez and I, we went in and said, look, you're sitting on this huge pot of money. The City of San Diego, our fire alert system, when a call comes in, a fire alert system has crashed. It's down. It's on bandages. And we're trying to fund that. And this helps emergencies on highways. And so it would help the fire department get to an accident quicker, extract somebody quicker, and actually that would save people's lives right here and now. And we brought forth a proposal and fire chief Maynard came in and also made a request in writing as well, and we asked for part of that huge pot of money, 1.7 of that, to go toward completing our fighter alert system for the San Diego of San Diego. 'Cause we believe that is road-side assistance, that is emergencies, that is saving lives unfortunate the vote boarded 2 to 1 -- excuse me, 2-5, and that request was denied. So the money still sits there.
CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with counsel woman Lorie Zapf, and we're talking about the San Diego County's call box system, whether or not we're paying too much, too much of that one-dollar fee that people pay on their license is going to just one place. Or whether we need the call box system at all. Counsel woman Zapf, you said the number of call box system decreasing in the county. Do you think cellphones have removed the need for freeway call boxes?
ZAPF: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, that is the prime reason. I mean, if you break down, who do you call? You have a cellphone and you call probably a family member or AAA or somebody like that. So yeah, it's cellphone service
CAVANAUGH: But not everybody has a cellphone. You know? How do you see the future of these call boxes in the next, let's say, five years? Do you think the system is going away?
ZAPF: Well, the other day, I actually -- I told my husband, look over there. It was a pay phone. And I said remind you of the call boxes? Well, they're just going away on their own. The decision to take out half of them was made well before I even came on board. This is just happening. I'm not advocating going and tearing out more or taking them out of rural areas. But I think people will see as they are driving around, there are a lot of call boxes out there. And we're paying for all of them.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I understand the Safe board is undertaking a long range study of call box usefulness. What kinds of things are you going to be studying?
ZAPF: I'm not sure, actually. I'm not familiar with that.
CAVANAUGH: Do you know how this program is financed? Is it that dollar fee that people pay in their license renewlies?
ZAPF: Yes, one day of every license -- car registration. Not the license. Car registration
CAVANAUGH: Car registration.
ZAPF: So some families, if you have more than 2 or 3 cars, you're paying more than just the $1. And we're spending a lot of money on marketing. We're spending over 200 grand to promote the 511 system. And that's a lot of money. We're spending far more to market something than it costs. And so I don't know that we need such a robust, huge marketing system. Of I think it's a simple message. And a simple message. If you break down, you need road-side assistance, go to a call box or dial 511 if you're in your car. You don't need a really fancy first page life streaming testimonials Facebook, twitter. You know what you need? Maybe a sticker in your car that just reminds you that call 511 if you're not thinking straight. You don't need something so in depth. So I just think that there's too much money being spent on the infrastructure, there's too much money being spent on this. And if we stop collecting the fee and my colleague and I made a motion to just put a hold what you will we're reforming this, put a hold on this fee. We have money to operate the call boxes and the 511 for, I think it was 15 years. We have reserves of 15 times. So we don't need to be collecting this. I think there's needs out there right now that if we're going to implement another fee, we should be trying to retire ones that are no longer needed.
CAVANAUGH: We have Kay caller on the Hine. Chuck is calling from Encinitas. Welcome to the show.
NEW SPEAKER: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: What's your question?
NEW SPEAKER: Well, I'm a paramedic. And I've been a paramedic for every 20 years, and those boxes are being used by people in emergencies. So if you remove them, what are they going to do? I know everybody don't have a cellphone. And in my experience, someone who calls on the freeway, are from you and those boxes. So what's going to happen to those people when they can't call? They can call for help
CAVANAUGH: Thank you, chuck. So let me pose that question to you. What's going to happen to people who don't have cellphones if we cut back further further further and there are no call boxes left?
ZAPF: Well, like we said, the facts are that calls have dropped by 90%. We can't cover every single solitary risk that happens to everybody out there. There are going to be some emergencies. I'm not advocating taking out the existing call boxes. And certainly not in the outlying rural areas. Again, they all work on a cellular service. So they are being served by cellphone service. Some people will be saved and possibly last night, there was one.
CAVANAUGH: With the woman who was car jacked and basically dumped on the side of the road
ZAPF: Yeah, without her cellphone. It was probably in the car. Exactly. Right now, we have money to operate this for many, many years to come. And again, they're being taken out of a lot of areas. And they've already been slated to be taken out over the next two years. I'm not here advocating for that. I'm here advocating for reform, restructuring, far more transparency from this organization. You've got a group of just seven people, I happen to be one of them right now, who are essentially kind of lording over this big pot of 12 point something million dollars, and I think -- in a company that has gone on for -- I think since 98, 6 times the contract renewed without going out for a bid
CAVANAUGH: That was going to be my final question to you. Teletran tech services, there was a story in the UT today that the usage is going down, but the amount being paid to that contractor has almost doubled in the past ten years. How is your feeling about competitive bidding? Because I know that there's some -- there's the idea that this company has given good service to the city and that perhaps there's no need for competitive bidding. What is your take on that?
ZAPF: We are one of a few that are actually a stand-alone infrastructure. I think that this organization could be folded into an existing one with existing infrastructure such as SANDAG. And there could be one person on staff that implements this program. They already have offices, insurance, all of that infrastructure. I think it could be run far more efficiently like it is in other counties. Not all of them are these stand-alone where you have to have office space and employees and this whole thing. We have infrastructure that it could be hold folded into, and it could be 1 or 2 web pages on the SANDAG site. There's another $214,000 we don't need to spend every year. There are a lot of things, a lot of reforms, and I'm looking for efficiency and certainly they are there.
CAVANAUGH: Is this one instance where you might say that outsourcing didn't save us any money?
ZAPF: Ya know, let me think. Outsourcing, apparently, according to Mr. Roberts, it saved in the beginning. But that doesn't mean it's going to continue saving over time. Circumstances change, technology changes. Maybe it was great for the '90s butch not so much for 2012. So I'm not sure I'll have to give that more thought
CAVANAUGH: Thank you very much. I've been speaking with Lorie Zapf, she's San Diego City Council member from District six. Thank you so much for coming in and speaking with us.
ZAPF: My pleasure. Thank you.