Those poor, orange plastic poles didn’t stand a chance against Bliss Aruj. The 17-year-old had just started driving. She was cruising along “in” the I-95 express lanes.
“My mom goes, ‘Bliss! You’re hitting the cones!’” Bliss recalls. “I think I might have taken out about 20 of them in a row.”
It costs “just north of a million” dollars a year -- funded by express lane tolls -- to keep up with delineator destruction, says Renato Marrero, with the Florida Department of Transportation. Each week, an FDOT contractor replaces anywhere from 11 to 15 percent of the plastic delineators on I-95. That means, on average, each plastic pole has to be replaced between 6 and 8 times per year.
“I specifically tell designers not to use them,” says Marrero, who oversees delineator maintenance on 95 Express. “Only because they have to be replaced often and they definitely deplete our budget.”
THE GREAT (PLASTIC) WALL
When the Florida Department of Transportation designed Miami-Dade’s 95 Express system, space was at a premium. Engineers squeezed a brand new lane onto the highway by shrinking existing lanes and significantly reducing the inside shoulder.
That only left about two feet of space to separate express drivers from non-express drivers. According to FDOT, that wasn’t room for a real barrier like a concrete wall. But no barrier -- i.e. solid lines painted on the road -- wasn’t an option.
Plastic poles it was then, soft enough to avoid serious car damage but hearty enough to get whacked 50 times and bounce back up. In July of 2008 the northbound stretch of delineators went up, a pole every 20 feet.
“Being in Miami or South Florida we really didn’t thinking people driving at a certain speed -- let’s say if you’re going 15, 20, 30 miles an hour -- would actually try to get through them,” says FDOT engineer Jason Chang. “And that’s what they did in the first week. So we had to shorten that space to ten feet.”
LAS VEGAS, MAN
Of course, once drivers realize the poles won’t really hurt their cars, it might not matter how far you space them apart. For example, 10-foot spacing wasn’t enough to stop Las Vegas drivers from being... Las Vegas drivers.
The Nevada Department of Transportation used plastic delineators on their I-15 express lanes in Las Vegas for just about 18 months.
“And in that time frame we probably replaced them four times,” says Mary Martini, an engineer with NDOT.
“Some of the more adventurous Las Vegas visitors thought they were really fun to do a slalom in... I personally witnessed one sports car do it for several miles.”
Martini says they’ve gone back to paint on the road after being overwhelmed by delineator maintenance expenses and the realization that humanity is, perhaps, at its worst behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.
“We’re inherently selfish when driving. We want to do what we want to do,” says Scott Cooner, an authority on HOV and express lanes at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. “If I see a line at a grocery station that’s faster than the one I’m in, I’m liable to jump over there. Is that illegal? No. In the case of HOV and the express lanes, it may be illegal. And one of the things we have to do a better job at, I think, is not just designing the systems but enforcing them. I think, you know, driver compliance is a function of both enforcement and design.”
ABOUT THAT ENFORCEMENT
FDOT hires Florida Highway Patrol troopers to work special shifts on 95 Express, in part, to stop people from jumping into and out of the delineators. The troopers are even asked to keep “lane diving” statistics on a special spreadsheet. (WLRN-Miami Herald News has filed a public records request to FDOT for those statistics.)
Master Trooper William Smith works these shifts regularly and says the problems start when one set of lanes gets backed up and the other is zipping along.
“Like we’re coming up to now,” he says on a recent 95 Express patrol. It’s about 3:30 in the afternoon. Smith’s patrol car is in the northbound express lanes. “The general purpose lanes are essentially stopped. See the black car? He just came between the two delineators.”
A few hundred feet in front of Smith’s well-marked FHP car, a black Nissan Z comes to a near stop, hits a delineator, and accelerates into the express lanes.
Because the emergency shoulder is 7’ 11” for most of the 95 express lanes -- about the width of a parking space -- Smith has to follow the Nissan for about six miles before finding a relatively safe place to stop the driver: an overpass near the Golden Glades with slightly wider shoulders.
Smith’s door opens into oncoming traffic. He waits until the coast is clear and then approaches the Nissan’s passenger window.
The lane diving, Smith says, “you realize that’s dangerous, right?”
“Yes, sir,” the driver says quietly.
“Okay,” Smith says. He does not sound convinced.