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511 calls from border take callers new direction

By Erin Middlewood
The Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.)

That's great for commuters crossing the Columbia River anyway, but not for those who want to know what's happening on state Highway 14 or Interstate 5 in Hazel Dell.

This mobile-phone crossover along the state border has tripped up Washington's Department of Transportation 511 phone system since it was launched six months ago.

Motorists who want up-to-the-minute road conditions can dial three easy-to-remember digits instead of 11 forgettable ones that make up the other toll-free number. It works great, agency officials say, except from most mobile phones in Vancouver and the Columbia River Gorge. Land lines here reach 511 without a problem.

Before Oregon got its system up and running in December, mobile-phone callers here reached a message telling them they had dialed a wrong number. Now they reach Oregon's 511 system and updates on road conditions there.

"We're still working out some kinks," said Jilayne Jordan, a spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Transportation.

The Federal Communications Commission designated 511 as the number for road information nationwide. It is part of a menu of the abbreviated dialing codes. Sometime next year, 211 will reach social-service referrals for the greater Portland-Vancouver area. A handful of large cities have established 311 to provide easy access to nonemergency government services, but nothing is in the works yet for Vancouver or Clark County.

Motorists have quickly taken to Washington's 511 system, a $1 million effort. The system received 16,000 calls in October. As more motorists headed into snow on mountain passes, that figure jumped to 30,000 in November, said Eldon L. Jacobson, Washington's Seattle-based 511 project manger.

Though Vancouver mobile-phone users have 360-prefix numbers assigned to Southwest Washington, their calls are routed through Portland. It's possible to call 911 and reach Clark County's emergency communications center because that system is more sophisticated and identifies where the call is coming from.

The technology was too expensive for a road-information system, Jacobson said.

He is working with Oregon officials to connect the two states' 511 system, so callers who reach one and want the other can be connected automatically.

"It's a little bit tricky, over the long run we'll get that figured out," said Glen Hammer, project manager for Oregon's traveler information system. "Both (states) are committed to getting the problem solved."

It will take some time, he said, given that Oregon just launched its system.

Jacobson said he hopes to have the two systems connected by June.

For now, Southwest Washington motorists calling from mobile phones will have to punch in the longer number 800-695-ROAD (7623).