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Florida dismantling call boxes along interstates

TAMPA — Cellphones have rendered obsolete yet another piece of what was once cutting-edge communications technology.

Interstate call boxes, the beacons of safety that dotted the shoulders of interstates and turnpikes across Florida, are in the process of being ripped out of the ground. Even their heavy feet, the concrete base on which they stand, are scheduled for destruction down the road.

In all, 2,752 call boxes are grounded in Florida soil along Interstates 10, 4, 75, 95, and 275, and Florida's Turnpike. Interstate 75 alone is dotted with 854 call boxes from the Georgia line to Fort Lauderdale, the southern terminus of the highway.

Florida Department of Transportation officials say the call boxes aren't practical in the cellphone age, particularly with the success of the *FHP program, a quick and easy way for stranded motorists — or motorists who spot stranded motorists — to call for help.

“Many people have cellphones, and we've noticed a decline in the use of call boxes,” said Kris Carson, spokeswoman for the department. “It just was not worth spending money to maintain them.”

She said dumping the call boxes, which have been a lifeline for stranded motorists for about four decades, will save the state about $1 million a year. There are no specific costs associated with the removal because the work is being done by a state highway maintenance contractor and that work is part of the contract. Many of the call boxes across Tampa have been removed, she said.

The use of call boxes has been on a steady downward spiral since 2004, state figures show. That year, 22,051 calls for service were made from call boxes. Last year, 7,807 calls were logged. On Interstate 75, call boxes were used to make 8,932 emergency calls in 2004 compared with 3,301 calls last year.

Department statistics say that Interstate 275, which stretches from the Hillsborough/Pasco county line through downtown Tampa, across Tampa Bay and south through St. Petersburg, ending in Manatee County, has 40 call boxes, including 22 on the Sunshine Skyway. Last year, those boxes logged a total of 56 calls.

And there's this: Interstate 4, which spans the state from downtown Tampa to Daytona Beach, logged 428 calls on 52 boxes in 2004. Last year, not a single call was made along the entire interstate, state statistics show.

Florida had been one of three states — along with Pennsylvania and Hawaii — that had maintained a highway call-box system.

The dismantling of the phones in the Sunshine State has begun. Transportation officials say the last of the call boxes will be gone by Jan. 31.

Instead of call boxes, the state recommends people call *FHP to report crashes, stranded motorists or even drunken drivers. The state has erected 1,000 *FHP signs along state and federal highways.

Florida Highway Patrol Capt. Nancy Rasmussen said the program has caught on.

“Everywhere, everybody is familiar with it,” she said from her Tallahassee office. “It does help motorists because when you call, it goes to the closest call center. It pings off towers where you are and if you are stranded, it takes you to the closest dispatch.

“It's great,” she said. “You don't have to go through the 911 system, so if you have a flat tire or you're out of gas, you don't have to tie up the emergency lines.”

All this means there's little value left to the call boxes that have helped motorists since the dawn of the disco era.

“This equipment/technology is over 20 years old and has reached the end of its useful life,” Carson said. “Therefore, the equipment is not going to be used anymore.”

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