Self serve or full serve? When it comes to renting traffic control, the choice is yours.

If you want to rent traffic cones and “men working” signs, the rental industry is happy to oblige you. But what many rental entities really would like is for you to come to the conclusion that traffic control is not your core competency, and you should leave the entire business to them.

So your first decision when renting traffic control is this: do you want to rent just the devices or should you also “rent” the expertise these companies offer?

They have some compelling arguments for you to opt for the second choice. “We deliver and set up the devices on the job, maintain them throughout the life of the project, do all the switchovers when there’s a phase change and remove everything at the end of the job,” explains Kathleen M. Holst, district manager for NES Traffic Safety near Chicago and current president of the American Traffic Safety Services Association. “It’s an opportunity for the prime contractor to turn over an entire set of responsibilities and – what’s even more key – liabilities. As a traffic control subcontractor our primary focus is keeping people alive.”

Traffic control is a service business rather than an asset rental business, says Kurt Barker, vice president of United Rental’s Highway Technologies division. “We’ll deploy the devices before the traffic gets heavy – even if it’s 4 a.m. – so when the contractor shows up he can focus on what he needs to focus on.”

“If we’re not doing the job right,” says Jim VanDeVelde, district manager for United Rental’s Highway Technologies, “someone is either going to get hurt or a contractor won’t be able to go to work.”

Whether contractors are prone to use this rented expertise depends entirely upon the region of the country. Holst reports that subbing traffic control has gained a strong acceptance in Chicago, where 99 percent of the work her company performs is service related. “The benefits to the contractor are numerous,” she comments. “Our crews are trained as traffic control technicians and our supervisors are certified to a higher level of expertise than perhaps those of a prime contractor whose ultimate goal and main focus is paving and bridge construction.”

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In downstate Illinois, however, the opposite is true, VanDeVelde says. “In Springfield and Carbondale, a lot of contractors will buy their barricades and then rent their lights from us,” he says. Florida road contractors also have the reputation for doing things on their own.

Perhaps the most important knowledge traffic control rental providers have is an understanding of what traffic control devices and plans are accepted on state and local levels. It can vary even within the same city, depending on who the project owner is. It even pays to know local inspectors and their preferences.

Trench Plate Rental, which works in California, Nevada and Texas, sees these differences every day, according to Chris Musser, vice president of sales and marketing. “In Las Vegas, for example, it’s a mixed bag,” he says. “For state projects in the city, the traffic control plans are done by the state and are part of the bid package. But if it’s a simple lane closure in town, the city expects the contractor to provide the traffic control plan, which the city then approves. We have to be prepared to provide an entire range of traffic control services and roll with the punches.”

Traffic control devices and their placement are governed by myriad regulations. On the federal side, the devices and traffic control plans must abide by the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, and all such devices must pass the crashworthiness standards set by National Highway Cooperative Research Program Report 350. But that’s just the beginning.

Fourteen states have currently adopted the MUTCD with a state supplement – meaning they’ve tacked on their own requirements. Another five states have indicated they plan to do the same. And four states have said thank you very much, but we’ll continue to use our own state version of the MUTCD.

And this doesn’t even include local regulations or even practices that become standards by default. If you’re an out-of-town contractor working in unfamiliar territory it can get confusing – and frustrating – fast. It’s a good time to call on the experts. “We even know what the local inspectors like to see on the jobs,” Musser says. “For instance, someone may prefer 42-inch cones rather than 28-inch cones. And some may require night cones during daylight hours.”

All of this promotes renting traffic control devices, whether or not you sub out all your traffic control needs. If you rent from a local reputable rental provider, they can quickly get you up to speed on the norms in the area. If you have any concerns over a particular device, your rental provider should also be able to give you a copy of the Federal Highway Administration letter that states the device is compliant with NHCRP 350.

Even if you decide to manage the traffic control devices on your jobsites, rental is still an excellent option, Barker says. “When you rent, you get more than the device,” he says. “You get the knowledge that it’s the right device to use on your job and it’s in the right condition when it arrives.”

Because there’s such a wide gamut of devices and services available, make sure you have a clear understanding with your rental provider about what’s included in the price, such as:

· Delivery and pickup
· Who’s responsible for making sure the devices are installed in compliance with the
traffic control plan. (This plan details the type, number and placement of devices.)
· Who will be responsible for lost, stolen or damaged equipment.
· Who will service the installed devices (making sure all lights are operable, etc.).

In addition, you should examine the quality of the devices offered, Barker says. “Reflective sheeting should be bright, the signs legible, barricades shouldn’t wobble and should be properly ballasted.” Make sure the devices are NHCRP 350 compliant, even if you are working for an owner that doesn’t require it.

“You should look for the newest traffic control equipment available, as dated equipment may prove a liability because it doesn’t meet current safety regulations,” says J. T. Sutton, branch manager for Hertz Equipment Rental. For example, he says, the Virginia Department of Transportation requires truck-mounted attenuators used on certain highways to be the new NHCRP 350 Level 3 TMAs. “Unfortunately, there are still a large number of inferior TMAs on the market,” he says. “You should refuse to accept non-compliant equipment.”

Reliable traffic devices are a must, says Jeff Hoch, vice president of operations for traffic control manufacturer Wanco. “If your traffic control equipment breaks down, you could have your job closed down,” he says. Any technicians provided by the rental provider to install, maintain and pick up your devices also should be American Traffic Safety Services Association certified, Barker adds.

In order to give you what you need, your rental provider should also ask you several questions. “In addition to clearly understanding the job,” Barker says, “we have to understand how you intend to build it. For example, how will you phase it? The bid package might call for four phases, but if you get their approval to only do two that definitely affects our price.”

“The first step is understanding what the contractor is attempting to do and what their work progression is,” Musser agrees. Here are some of the questions your rental provider should be asking you:

· How long is the project? (Affects the timing of service calls.)
· How many people will be working in the work zone and how much space do you need to
get your work done?
· Will you be working nights?
· How many lanes will be open to traffic?
· What equipment will you need to get in and out of the work zone and how often? (Example: Dump trucks delivering asphalt.)
· Do you have a traffic control plan? (Some rental providers offer this service. These usually need to be approved by a certified engineer serving the project owner.)
· Do you require any switchovers from the installed location?
· Where is the delivery site?
· Do you plan to move any traffic control devices to another job?
· Will you stack the devices for the rental company to pick up?
· Is 24-hour surveillance required? “We’ll go out and refresh a site daily,” Barker says, “picking up the devices that are overturned, and making sure everything’s in order.”
· Do you need flaggers or pilot car operators? (Provided by some rental outfits; may be subject to union rules.)

Keep in mind your rental provider will likely offer personal protective apparel (reflective vests, suits, etc.) for sale. This is another area where you need to know what the local jurisdictions require. “This is especially true for night work, where many times the worker visibility requirements are different from day work,” says Holtz. “In some places, different vests are required for flaggers to distinguish them from the construction crew.”

VanDeVelde, who’s been in the traffic control business for more than 20 years, says today’s devices are more high tech and require less maintenance. For example, he points to the flashing light on top of a barricade. “They used to be incandescent lights powered by a 6-volt battery,” he says. “Now they are all LEDs with small D-cell batteries and we get much more use out of them.” Similarly, the generator-powered arrow board is fading. Now most are solar powered, and manufacturers such as Allmand offer solar retrofit kits for gasoline- or diesel-powered units.

Since a lot of advancements on these devices are internal, most are not seen by the motoring public, Musser says.

Of course, the crashworthiness requirements of 1993’s NHCRP 350 have made a huge impact on today’s devices. Some in the industry are calling for an update of these standards to reflect current technology.

Intelligent systems computerize work
One technology gaining rapid acceptance is ITS, or intelligent traffic systems, which use computers to monitor and control traffic through work zones. For example, United Rentals has just deployed its Internet-based Automatic Information Management System on a Little Rock, Arkansas, road job. The project is using 116 devices – including video cameras, radar speed indicators, highway advisory radios and variable message boards – and will run through 2004.

“IT systems are now proven,” VanDeVelde says, “and states love them because they work.”

Lower tech but no less significant devices include:

· Temporary traffic signals at each end of a project. “These eliminate the need for flaggers,” Musser says.
· Portable radar trailers with two-digit signs that tell motorists their speed when they go through a work zone. “These are very popular with police,” says Wanco’s Hoch “You now see them before the work zone and within the zone.”
· SafetyCade and VertiCade, manufactured by United Rentals. “We love these products,” Barker says, “because they’re highly visible and very direct in what they tell drivers to do.” Wanting a more durable alternative to the standard A-frame barricade, United Rentals took the unusual move for a rental provider and manufactured its own product, Barker says. The SafetyCade has a patented spring-loaded detent mechanism that retains a rigid vertical position until impact, then locks the unit flat, protecting vehicles and workers from flying debris. The VertiCade – just 12 inches wide – is used in tight configurations.

In addition, research and development of new traffic control devices is ongoing. You can browse some ideas presently under review on the National Crash Analysis Center’s website at research/RoadSide/index.html.

Whatever your size, traffic control rental and service providers would like to see you consider their full menu of services. “One of the main misconceptions is price,” says Holtz. “Contractors may think they can do it cheaper themselves, but they also need to factor in the costs of safety and liability. If they would put a pencil to it, in a lot of cases the cost benefit is right in line with the opportunity to transfer that risk.”