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Tuesday, Feb 19 2013 10:00 PM

Under-used call box money could fund highway clean up

BY ANTONIE BOESSENKOOL Californian staff writer aboessenkool@bakersfield.com

Another substantial chunk of funding soon could be directed at roadside trash in Kern County.

On Thursday, Kern Council of Governments directors are set to consider shifting $250,000 or more used to maintain roadside call boxes to litter pickup and enforcement.

KernCOG, a body of county government and local cities' representatives, addresses regional transportation issues. The agency collects $1 from vehicle registration fees in Kern County to maintain 574 roadside emergency call boxes for drivers.

But given that most drivers carry cell phones, the directors will consider shifting money from the call box fund to litter enforcement and pickup, Executive Director Ahron Hakimi said Tuesday at a meeting of the Keep Bakersfield Beautiful Committee, Bakersfield's anti-litter organization.

The money must be spent on road safety, but litter on the roads is a clear safety issue, Hakimi said.

"Could cleaning up litter or enforcing litter save a life?" Hakimi said. "The study ... from the Federal Highway Administration states that, I think, between 50 and 60 people a year are killed in litter- or debris-related accidents" nationwide.

Call box use has dropped so far that each call works out to be about $75 worth of funding, Hakimi said. The vehicle fees for the boxes amount to about $800,000 a year, and KernCOG doesn't spend it all.

A more than $1 million reserve has built up. Part of that could be used, plus excess annual funding if KernCOG decides to cut the number of call boxes, he said. That could come to $250,000 a year or more available for anti-litter efforts.

KernCOG Chairman and Bakersfield Councilman Harold Hanson, representing the city of Bakersfield, and Kern County Supervisor Zack Scrivner, representing the county, are pushing the idea.

The money could be used for increased enforcement by California Highway Patrol officers, specifically targeting trucks hauling trash without covering their loads, Scrivner said. Or it could pay for increased staff time for Kern County Sheriff's Office officers to oversee county inmates as they pick up trash, he said.

Those are some of the ideas KernCOG directors will discuss Thursday, he said.

"Hopefully, the board will see the logic in shifting the money away from the call boxes," Scrivner said. "With that kind of money ... we can potentially get a good handle on the problem through our highway corridors in town."

"(Litter) is an issue I'm hearing quite a bit from my constituents about," he said.

Hanson said call boxes will still be needed in some areas, such as on portions of Highway 178 through the Kern River Canyon, but cutting back on underused call boxes could yield roughly $300,000 a year to direct at litter enforcement and cleanup.

"This (money) has to be used for public safety," Hanson said. "Believe it or not, litter can be not only harmful to the environment, but it causes accidents."

Citations for littering could be a focus, he said.

"Maybe if enough people, it costs them (to litter), they may get a lesson and talk to other people and maybe we can clean this up."

Meanwhile, Bakersfield city and Caltrans staff are still working out the details for a contract to use about $250,000 in Caltrans funds for litter pickup.

In past years, Caltrans used that money to help pay for prison inmate crews to pick up highway litter, but the contract with the now-closed Shafter Community Correctional Facility ended in 2011.

The contract now under consideration would pay residents at the Bakersfield Homeless Center minimum wage to clean up litter along the highways through Bakersfield.

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