Motorists want to know
BY JANET PEARSON Associate Editor
Sunday, August 12, 2012
8/12/12 at 3:12 AM
Want to know what really irritates Tulsa drivers? It's when they happen upon a road construction zone and there appears to be no work going on. Sometimes these apparently work-free work zones seem to sit idle for weeks, even months.
After I wrote a column a few weeks ago on construction zone safety, lots of readers responded with complaints about this phenomenon. Some even suggested these deserted work zones might have the unintended effect of causing motorists to become complacent about abiding by traffic regulations.
I've noticed the same thing myself, so I decided we drivers deserve some answers.
In fairness, it ought to be pointed out that the mazes of cones, barrels and signs accompanying construction zones aren't some sinister scheme hatched by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to irritate motorists. Projects receiving federal funds must follow requirements outlined in the federal "Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices," which dictates in detail how work zones are to be configured and marked.
Terri Angier, ODOT chief of media and public relations, explained that cones, barrels and other work-zone paraphernalia don't necessarily mean there's work going on or to be done at that exact spot.
"Cones and barrels are there also to protect the driver, because the road may not be able to handle higher speeds," she said. "We might have modified a lane - narrowed it or added a curve - so the markers are there to let motorists know it's not a regular roadway any more. ... The cones and barrels indicate the road has not been brought back to finished form. We don't want drivers thinking the road is in its final form."
Another reason cones and barrels seem to be in work zones forever is that they're left there until a project is completely finished because moving them is costly - one of the most expensive elements of traffic control. "Moving the barrels on and off the work site would be astronomical," she said.
Even though motorists aren't seeing work going on at some sites, it might be happening without their knowledge, Angier explained. In the case of bridge projects, work may be going on above or below open lanes of traffic, unseen by passing motorists. "According to the feds, it's a work zone area, and you have to have cones and barrels marking it under federal regulations even if you're not closing a lane," said Angier.
Sometimes contractors work during the nighttime when traffic is less of a problem for them, so most motorists aren't seeing that work get done. And sometimes, a project appears to be finished, but there's still more work to be done.
"We may open lanes to traffic but we can't take cones and barrels off because there still is work going on - maybe striping, maybe sodding, maybe waiting on inspection. Often inspection will lead to more work being needed, and so the area remains a work zone until everything is done. You don't pick up the cones and barrels until the final inspection is done and all work is completed."
Sometimes, asphalt and concrete have to set for awhile, leaving a work site idle up to several weeks. "In the late stages of a project, work is intermittent, so drivers won't see work going on all the time," noted Angier.
Weather is sometimes a factor in work schedules. "For example, with sodding, we would not require sod to be put down now because of the extreme temperatures. We would agree to wait for cooler weather. During that span, you may not see any work going on."
Angier said changes in how construction contracts are written have greatly motivated contractors to move a project along, so it's not likely motorists are witnessing a lot of dawdling.
"In the last 10 to 15 years, we really have put a major focus on work zone areas to make sure if we say there's work going on, there's work going on. We've added incentives to get the work done and included milestones in each project. The reason we do that is to make it extremely unprofitable for a contractor to not be working on a project," said Angier. If contractors finish early they can receive a bonus, and if they go over schedule, they are penalized.
"These days, because contracts are written so tightly, there's not much leeway in the schedule," she added. "Believe me, the contractor wants to be done with the job too, so he can finish that job and go on to bid on the next one."
Sometimes even ODOT officials wonder why a work zone appears idle. In the case of the bridge work on the Broken Arrow Expressway near the Yale Avenue exit, officials questioned why a section was "coned off" so far in advance. "We had several questions about why cones were up when no work was being done," said Angier. It turned out the contractor put out cones so a barrier wall could be brought in.
The BA bridge project schedule also is affected by two other factors: proximity of the work site to neighborhoods, which limits when work can be done, and the schedule of trains on the rail line in the work area. Work also has to come to a halt for several weeks when concrete is poured.
So, it turns out there could be lots of reasons why work zones aren't always a beehive of activity. But whether work is apparent or not, it still is a good idea to assume there's a good reason why somebody decided to put those cones and barrels out there.
Janet Pearson 918-581-8328
Moving cones and barrels in and out of highway construction zones is one of the most expensive elements of traffic control, according to the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. Tulsa World file photo