Solar-powered cell phones installed along Highway 50 |

Solar-powered cell phones installed along Highway 50

Jeff Munson, Tribune city editor

As part of a regionwide transportation plan, emergency cellular phone call boxes are now located throughout Highway 50, from South Lake Tahoe all the way to the Sacramento and El Dorado county lines.

In all, 91 boxes have been installed, averaging one station for every mile and costing about $364,000, said Dave Boyer, planner for the Capital Regional Service Authority, which implemented the plan.

During an average day, Highway 50 has between 12,000 and 56,000 cars on the road from Lake Tahoe to the West Slope at any given time. The amount of traffic on the road, and the fact that it is increasing, lent itself to the program, Boyer said.

“Because of the amount of average daily traffic, Highway 50 in El Dorado County is one of the areas designated for the boxes,” he said.

El Dorado and five other counties agreed to use vehicle license fee money to pay for the call boxes, on Highway 50 and other highways and freeways in the region.

Beginning last month, the installation took about two weeks and involved finding areas that are conducive to receiving cell phone signals, said Todd Hoyt, manager of Comarco, the company contracted by Capital Regional Service Authority to install the phones.

The phones are powered by solar panels during the daylight hours and batteries charged by the solar panels for nighttime use. The phones dial directly to the California Highway Patrol, where a dispatcher will direct officers to the scene of accidents or call tow truck companies if a vehicle breaks down.

“According to the circumstances, whether it is a flat tire or a car fire, the CHP will contact (and direct) the right agency or the right people to the scene,” Hoyt said.

The tricky part was not only finding areas along the mountain highway where cell phones could actually pick up signals but areas that were also wide enough for drivers to safely pull off the road.

The mountains and the narrow stretches along Highway 50, right around Ice House Road, made for some creative maneuvering, with some stretches going for a few miles without a call box.

“There were some challenges in putting them in. We worked closely with Mountain Cellular and AT&T Cellular to arrange for the best location for these,” Hoyt said.

Because Highway 50 has both two and four lanes of traffic, the call boxes were placed on both sides of the road. Signs alert motorists of the call boxes and can be easily seen at night.

The idea was to first make it safe for the motorist to use, with a wide shoulder area where they could easily pull off the side of the road. Secondly, cellular phone reception had to be placed in lockstep with the road shoulders so that phone calls could be made without interference. Finally, the shoulders had to have good solar coverage so that the batteries could be recharged, Hoyt said.

As for a potential for vandalism, it always exists. Any damaged phones will be repaired under the contract, Hoyt said.

“It is a great idea for people who have breakdowns late at night or are in areas where there is not access to other means of communication,”Hoyt said. “The phone dials directly to the California Highway Patrol, who can pinpoint the exact location of the call box. That’s not common on most cellular phones,” Hoyt said.

— Jeff Munson can be reached at

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