Tuesday, August 24, 1999

By Dean Sensui, Star-Bulletin
Daniel Galera plants a cone along Kapiolani Boulevard
just before the start of morning rush-hour traffic.

Life in the contra-flow lane

Those fellows who plant
the cones say they get no
respect, but, hey, they get
you to work on time

By Gordon Y.K. Pang


Traffic coners are the Rodney Dangerfields of city government.

Each morning and afternoon, they're on Honolulu streets laying cones and later picking them up again. They're exposed to oncoming traffic and the insults and gestures of angry motorists.

"People don't have any respect for coners," said Mike Souza, supervisor for the Signs and Markings Section.

Yet Souza's office is flooded with calls if the coning crew arrives too early or late.

By Dean Sensui, Star-Bulletin
Daniel Galera, left, and Ramonito Flores make up one
of two crews who set up contra-flow lanes every day.

"A lot of people time themselves in the morning according to the coning," said Souza, who got his first job with the city as a coner in the 1970s. "If the contra-flow lane isn't there, it's hard."

It started in 1952 along Kapiolani Boulevard from Piikoi to McCully streets as a way to ease traffic congestion. City traffic officials say it continues today, despite the advent of freeways and zipper lanes, because it's economical and dependable.

The Facilities Maintenance Department, which took over coning operations this year, estimates it costs about $192,660 annually to maintain three crews. There's a morning and afternoon crew for the Kapiolani route, a morning crew only for Kalanianaole Highway. A portion of that money comes from the state Department of Transportation, which contracts the city to do the Kalanianaole route.

Joe Magaldi, city deputy transportation director, said the crews represent the best way of easing peak-hour traffic on surface roads, short of road widening.

"It's economical. It's a way to get more capacity onto what's not being used," he said.


They gather before dawn at a Kewalo base yard. On this morning, coners Ramonito Flores and Daniel Galera join driver Joe Silvestre aboard a bright red flatbed truck for the Kapiolani run from South Street to Kaimuki Avenue.

The first cone is dropped at the top of Kapiolani at 5:05 a.m. Silvestre clicks on the large, lighted moving arrow sign, telling motorists to stay in the right lanes.

Flores hands Galera cones and signs. A cone is placed on every third stripe; the stripes are 40 feet apart.

By Dean Sensui, Star-Bulletin
Ramonito Flores gets ready to drop a sign along Ward
Avenue. The cone truck was built specifically for this
task. It features low-slung seats that allow workers easy
access to the street without having to stoop over all the time.

It's a methodical process. Some hand signals are exchanged, but there's little conversation as the cones are laid.

When the occasion calls for it --intricate intersections like the left-turn lanes on the corner of Kapiolani and McCully Street require more work -- Flores leaps from the truck and helps plunk down cones.

Inside the truck, Silvestre is keeping the vehicle steady at 10 mph. He checks his rear-view mirrors constantly, looking for fallen cones and misplaced signage.

It's important to check each sign that's dropped to ensure it is located and positioned as planned. Some say "No Left Turn." Others say "This lane for left turn only." Some say "Keep Right." Others say "Keep Left." Some are two-sided.

Keeping the signage in order is the important part of the job, Silvestre said.

"That is very dangerous to the public," he said. "If you mix up the sign, someone could get into an accident and you're liable."


While the Honolulu Police Department began morning and afternoon peak-hour traffic coning of the Piikoi to McCully section of Kapiolani in 1952, it wasn't until two years later that the afternoon route was extended to Date Street.

The route has lengthened and shortened since then. For a time, the Kapiolani coning extended all the way to the end of Kaimuki, nearly connecting with the Kalanianaole route, said Edward Chee, a retired city traffic engineer.

By Dean Sensui, Star-Bulletin
Flores and Daniel Galera, left, quickly place cones
and signs at the intersection of Kapiolani Boulevard
and University Avenue.

The Hawaii Kai route began in 1973 in response to the mushrooming East Honolulu population. It started as an express route only and, by 1976, became a high-occupancy lane for vehicles with four or more passengers. Today the lane requires only two passengers.

In 1994, the East Honolulu truck broke down on Kalanianaole in the midst of morning rush hour, prompting a traffic backup to Hawaii Kai and a flood of complaints. Soon after, a third, standby truck was added to the coning crew.

The state, through the late 1980s and early 1990s, considered contra-flow coning of the Pali and Likelike highways to help Windward commuters journeying downtown. But that idea was scrapped because of costs and opposition from Kalihi and Nuuanu residents.


Flores and Galera, both 33 with wives and young children, have no trouble deciding what is the worst part of the job.

"Just getting up in the morning," Galera said, peering through weary eyes.

"Yup, getting up early in the morning," chimes in Flores.

Silvestre, 55, doesn't mind the early hour. Driving a truck takes him out of the base yard and away from more strenuous work. "It's easier for me," he said.

No one places cones full time.

By Dean Sensui, Star-Bulletin
Galera digs up debris from a ready-made
post hole in the street. Signs usually drop right in,
but occasionally the holes get filled with gravel.

Galera is a part-timer who doubles as a full-time cook at Ihilani Resort. That job starts at 1 p.m.

Flores and Silvestre are city full-timers who spend their non-coning time carving and painting signs for the road crew in the Kewalo base yard. They get paid about $10 to $11 an hour.

There are more than 200 cones and signs to each route, which are both between three and four miles long.


The crew begins picking up the cones from the Waialae Avenue side at 8:25. Picking up, the coners will tell you, is more dangerous than putting them in place.

On Kapiolani, just past the Piikoi Street intersection, a woman in a large vehicle pulls behind the coning truck.

That means she's driving on the wrong side of the road.

More puzzled than angry, Flores narrows his eyes at the driver. He then begins flailing his arms to his left, urging that she go that way.

It gets worse.

The car stops to make a left turn, leaving her exposed to oncoming traffic as the cone truck moves farther away.

Sure enough, a car heading Diamond Head overtakes the truck and slides into the newly created lane, heading straight toward the car making a left.

Fortunately, the car is not going very fast and traffic is light. An accident is averted.

"Some people don't listen," Flores said, shaking his head. "Even when we tell them don't follow us, they follow us."

"There's a lot of close calls," Galera said. "Plenty people try to beat the truck."

There are also a lot of insults.

"When we pick up, that's when they yell at us: 'Hey, you're too early,' " Galera said.

"Especially when we pick up in Hawaii Kai," Flores said. "They cannot go, so they yell 'f--- you'."

Other states don’t
see much coning

By Gordon Y.K. Pang


Cones and other hand-placed devices apparently aren't used much on the mainland to create contra-flow lanes. National transit experts, though, including those at the Federal Highway Administration, say they have no statistics.

"It's unusual, but I'm not saying it's unprecedented," said Richard Retting of the Virginia-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

And where contra-flow lanes are created manually, they are mostly done with tubes, known as probes, that fit into pre-drilled holes in the road. In Honolulu, the tubes are used only at intersections. Cones are used elsewhere.

Perhaps the most famous "tubed" thoroughfare, at least on the West Coast, is the 62-year-old Golden Gate Bridge.

Maryla Harrington of the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District Authority manager's office said foot-high, bright yellow reflective tube sticks are used. The six-lane bridge has four configurations, for morning, midday, afternoon and late evening commutes.

Harrington said there are some complaints. "People would like us to just put a divider and let traffic back up, but we can't, because there's just too much traffic," she said.

Bob Connors, a public affairs officer with the California Department of Transportation, said the Cul De Sac Bridge in the Bay area is coned manually. The Coronado Bridge in San Diego uses a "movable barrier" similar to Honolulu's ZipLane.

Both the Oregon and Washington state transportation departments said they don't use coning as a daily, peak-hour solution, only to divert traffic in construction areas.

Toby Rickman of the Washington Department of Transportation, said there are reversible roadways, similar to Hawaii's ZipLane, along freeway sections through downtown Seattle.

Retting, whose organization researches traffic safety and is funded by insurance companies, said he sees probes in a number of places, including high-speed roads in New York City.

No studies have been done on their use, he said.

Still, "having a contra-flow lane does create a greater risk because you're changing what drivers expect," Retting said. "The cones get knocked down and drivers can't see them, or they get confused by the patterns."

Often, probes and cones are accompanied by overhead signs with green arrows and red X's, giving motorists further information, he said.

Retting has never been to Hawaii and hasn't seen how coning works here.

Movable concrete barriers like the ZipLane are the safest way to create contra-flow lanes, "but (that) doesn't seem like something feasible on a 25-mile-an-hour street," he said.

"If they've been doing it for 40 years and they're crash-free, then they're ahead of the curve, but it's hard to imagine that there aren't some problems," he said.

Retting suggested the use of overhead signs or other means of ensuring that motorists unfamiliar with local contra-flow coning don't get confused.

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