They'll be fewer Road Rangers to ride to rescue

Driving down Interstate 275, Luis Luna is listing all the stuff he's pulled off this highway.

"I've seen couches, ladders, washing machines right out in the lanes," he said. "Barbecue grills, tire rims, groceries, garbage bags and pieces of drywall and insulation with cars swerving around them."

Luna is one of the state Road Rangers who rescue stranded motorists on Tampa Bay area highways, help police at crash sites and clear away road debris. Very soon there will be fewer of them because their budget has been cut in half. Next year, they may disappear entirely.

The problem, Road Rangers say, is that the public and Florida lawmakers don't fully understand what they do.

Soon Luna is standing at the bottom of an entrance ramp at the junction of I-275 and I-4 in Tampa. He's setting up traffic cones and flashing lights to carve out a "safe zone" around an accident scene where a state trooper is interviewing two drivers.

Suddenly a woman pulls off the road with a shredded tire. She's frantic. This is a hostile environment to be on foot — semis blow by at 75 mph, the sun beats down on concrete, shards of Bud Light bottles litter the shoulder. There's no safe place in sight.

Luna changes her tire in five minutes.

"This is a huge blessing," gushes the driver, Sandra Oldham of Lakeland. "What would I have done? I didn't know there was such a thing as Road Rangers."

The Rangers hear this a lot.

• • •

Most motorists who get helped by the Rangers have never heard of them before. Many assume they're a towing company prowling for business instead of a free service funded by taxpayers.

The statewide program, which has assisted roughly 2-million drivers since 2000, nearly got the ax this year. Facing a massive revenue shortfall, lawmakers cut the $21-million program out of the budget. After getting complaints from the public, they put back $11-million. But next year promises to be another budget crunch.

"Who knows what'll happen?" said Terry Hensley, a state transportation official who oversees the local Road Rangers.

"In tight budget times, it's hard to justify having somebody out there just to give out gas and change tires," Hensley said. But he argues that the Rangers play a more important role than that.

Their first priority, he said, is to block off accident scenes to protect troopers, rescue workers and wreck victims from getting hit by oncoming cars.

"A lot of the crashes you see on the side of the road, it's because we moved them out of the lanes," said Larry Jones, a local Road Ranger supervisor. "Once that traffic gets jammed up, it really gets backed up."

• • •

In the Tampa Bay area, about 30 Rangers patrol 24/7 on every highway in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, including I-275 from the Sunshine Skyway up to New Tampa, as well as I-4, I-75, the Veterans Expressway and the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway.

Once the new fiscal year starts July 1, Rangers in other cities like Orlando and Miami will end service on nights and weekends to focus on the weekday commuter rush. They're also looking for sponsors to advertise on their trucks. State Farm, Florida's largest insurer, is talking to state officials about sponsoring Road Ranger programs.

Local officials haven't decided what to do yet. They already have far more Rangers working weekdays. Hensley said they may scale back patrols on some of the outlying highways to focus on their core area of I-275 through St. Petersburg and Tampa, and the Tampa section of I-4.

One reason lawmakers nearly eliminated the Rangers is that some still view them as a luxury. Florida didn't have them as recently as the 1990s.

But Hensley argues that if the Road Rangers disappeared, the short-staffed Highway Patrol would have to deal with the problems the Rangers handle now.

For now, Rangers like Luis Luna will keep rolling down the highways in their white trucks that function as mobile service stations. Luna, 37, has jugs of gas and diesel fuel, compressed air for flat tires, water for overheated radiators, bolt cutters, wrenches, screwdrivers, work gloves and wraparound shades.

He often arrives at crashes before police or medical workers get there. He sets out cones, flares and lights. In 2001 and 2006, local Rangers were hit and killed by cars while doing the same thing. But Luna takes pride in securing the scene for rescue workers.

"We watch their backs," he said. "They want to make sure they can take care of the patient and not have to look over their shoulder every two seconds.

"What kind of price do you put on safety?"

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3435.

>>FAST FACTS

What they do

Road Rangers can:

• Change your tire

• Give you a gallon of gas

• Try to make quick, basic repairs to your vehicle

• Let you use their cell phone to call for assistance

• Tow or push your vehicle to the nearest safe spot

Rangers can't:

• Provide taxi service

• Accept tips

• Tow your car to a garage

To get a Ranger:

• Call *FHP

They'll be fewer Road Rangers to ride to rescue 06/28/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 30, 2008 9:33pm]

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