Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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September 18, 2012

Better cell service coming to Turnpike

BECKLEY — Expanded cell phone coverage is all but assured along the West Virginia Turnpike, long a source of consternation to commuters with its multiple curves and mountainous terrain that abruptly shuts off signals.

Two towers are in the works, one at the Morton travel center, the other at the Chelyan toll plaza, and four or five others could be possible.

Turnpike Manager Greg Barr says Verizon has been given a copy of the proposed lease and final approval could come at the West Virginia Parkways Authority’s board meeting in October.

From West Virginia’s perspective, the lease has been approved by the Real Estate Division of the Department of Administration, along with the Division of Highways and the parkways authority, Barr said Monday.

“Statewide, we’ve got the language in an approved format and sent it off to Verizon to have their counsel review it,” the Turnpike manager said.

“We’re waiting to hear back from them. For a while, the ball was in our court. We couldn’t get approval of lease language from all parties. Now, we’ve got it. We’re just waiting to hear from Verizon. I don’t think it will be long.”

The lease would allow for as many as three other cell phone firms to share the towers, and each would pay Verizon a rental fee, of which 25 percent would go the parkways authority. Verizon would have the option of choosing the other three, with parkways approval.

“We have the right to review and give consent before they can allow another company to put equipment up there,” he said.

“Obviously, we want to see as many different cell phone companies as possible.”

At Barrier C, one tower would be near a structure on the side of the road behind a guardrail. Each such tower would have a small building at its base to store electrical equipment. Access to the gated structures would be limited to Verizon and the parkways.

A second tower, this one at the Morton travel plaza, about midway between Beckley and Charleston, accessible to northbound traffic, would be behind a guardrail as traffic merges back into the highway on the right.

“Access we provide is an area where Verizon could pull off the road and park, not on the shoulder, but off the road, and park and walk over to the tower gate and work on their equipment,” Barr said.

“That’s the advantage to some companies that put towers on top of mountains, where there are no utilities, no electricity, no roads. All that stuff has to be built.”

While nothing is set in stone, Barr said Verizon has been eyeing four or five other locations to erect the 195-foot, mono-pole towers to enhance cellular coverage. Even with only two such towers in the immediate future, coverage should improve.

“We’re definitely requiring them to permit other companies to use the towers,” Barr said.

“It would be a shame if every cell phone company had to build their own tower system. That would be an extra, huge investment. Instead of one, you’d have six. That doesn’t make sense when other companies could just hang their equipment there. I think the company that builds the tower has the biggest investment in that site. It’s only fair they get to charge a fee for other companies to hang their equipment, because the other companies didn’t have to build the tower.”

Many commuters have complained about the “dark holes” along the 88-mile toll road where calls suddenly disappear, but Barr said he heard of no incident where a crisis was compounded by the inability to put in a distress call from a stranded or sickened motorist.

“We do have a lot of traffic on the road,” he said.

“People are driving by the all the time. We’ve got state troopers driving up and down the road. At the toll plazas, people report broken down vehicles. They’ll tell a toll worker, ‘Hey, I passed a car and it looks like somebody needs help.’ They’ll radio in to our operators and send the state police or the Courtesy Patrol. There are a lot of other ways of finding people that are stranded than by just them having a cell phone to call in.”

West Virginia law now makes its a secondary offense to use a hand-held wireless device to talk while driving, but Barr said there is no excuse to violate this.

“The average occupancy rate in a passenger car is like 2.1,” he said.

“Most people are going to have somebody with them to be their navigator or talk on the phone for them.”

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