An orange cone is nothing but simple plastic, moulded into a shape and slapped with reflective tape. Yet this seemingly innocuous, inanimate object has become an endless source of frustration and an emblem of Montreal and its many construction sites.

This city is known for many things, but the orange cone is one of the most ubiquitous figures in its landscape. Any celebrity who takes a picture in the streets is instantly clocked for being in Montreal if even one of those cones is in the background.

You might've even seen a few people with orange cone tattoos and orange cone merchandise for sale in tourist shops. And when things end up as overpriced commodities in a tourist shop, you know they carry inflated symbolic importance. 

For such an important figure, however, the orange cone still carries an element of mystery for many Montrealers. Details on how the orange cones came to be or how much they cost are few and far between. So, we went to the source. 

Signalization SMG is a company based in Montreal that produces and rents out orange cones to construction contractors around Quebec. Though not the inventors of the cones, SMG is one of the largest providers of traffic management services in the province. 

We spoke with Christian Fay, vice-president of Signalization SMG to find out more about Montreal's most rage-inducing national symbol.


Responses have been edited for clarity. 

Orange cones serve an important purpose and no, not only as unwilling sparring partners to aspiring karate masters. Cones are one of the most important signage features on a construction site, indicating road closures and detours and alerting drivers and pedestrians that "Here Be Construction." 

According to Christian Fay, business is booming for SMG this year. With the Champlain Bridge, the Turcot Interchange, and hundreds of other projects, the company is one of the biggest in Montreal. 

There are over 100,000 cones in Quebec and big surprise, most are in Montreal. 

Though his company is a big reason why every street and highway entrance in your neighbourhood is detoured, Fay, like all of us, is a commuter. 

"There is so much work that needs to be done is that it’s difficult to coordinate and solve the problems," he says.

"And I know my company is part of it but like everybody else, I drive my car and say to myself, “what are they doing? How am I being sent to another detour? Who’s running these things, I can’t believe it!"

Below are our italicized questions for Fay followed by his responses.

Does Signalisation SMG primarily rent out the cones or do cities buy them? 

A company like ours, for example, will charge a contractor for closing traffic lanes. We don’t rent the cones out, we’re giving the service of putting them in place according to the standards.

Let’s say a company wants to close the right lane on Highway 13 from one point to another. We’ll estimate a price for that and that includes bringing the cones to the site, our trucks, our employees' salaries. Basically, we’re not renting the cone on a per-unit basis, we’re charging for the service of closing the lane and that includes the orange cones.

It’s uncommon but let’s say a smaller company decides to rent only the cones, they’ll pay anywhere from .30 cents to $1.50 per cone, per day. That’s not the way we or most signage companies work though — we’re selling the service, not the equipment.


READ ALSO: Ville-Marie Tunnel Needs 10 Years Of Construction Work & Montrealers Are Already Fed Up

How much, on average, does the service cost the city or a contractor? 

It depends on where and what you want to close. Say you wanted to close the Champlain Bridge. Now, you can’t just close the bridge, but all the entrance and exits to the bridge. You don’t want people stuck on the highway or arriving at a dead end. So that’s usually about $20,000 to close the exits and the highway. Now, if you’re just closing the left lane on a highway, you can get away with $1500 depending on the configuration of the road.

For the simplest jobs, anywhere between $1000 to $2500 to close a lane or a ramp. And it could go up to $20-25,000 for a large scale project. It becomes complicated because there are so many different sites and situations so it can become pretty expensive.

That’s why it’s always done by specialized people like us because contractors won’t necessarily know the standards of how to organize closing the lanes, the distance between the cones, all that.

There’s a misconception with a lot of Montreal drivers that the orange cones come from one company and one place. People always need someone to blame. Is Signalization SMG the only company in Montreal? 

There are three or four big companies like Signalization SMG and Garda is probably the biggest provider of traffic management in the city. There are also many other smaller companies.

Actually, the guy who invented them was not able to put a patent on his design! So, basically, every company has its own cone. The only standards according to the Ministry of Transportation are that the cones need to be at least 1.2 metres high and 30 centimetres wide and have precise stripes of orange and white reflective tape. That’s all they give you in terms of standards but every company has its own product.

Most big companies like ours have their own production practices. The design is ours and we work with a plastic supplier and we have our own moulds.

How much does the company profit each year from providing this service? 

Profits change every year because we work with the lowest bidder. What I mean is that we don’t work directly with the ministry or the city. Who we work with is the contractor that was awarded the contract. So, the Ministry of Transportation announces that they want to fix a bridge. They tender the contract to general contractors, the contractors bid, and whoever bids the lowest wins the job.

Contractors will always take the lowest price they get. Our clients are the contractors who won the contract from the ministry. We never work with the city directly.

What’s the biggest problem, in your experience, that Montreal has when it comes to awarding contracts, construction sites? What do we need to overcome as a city?

The biggest problem is that there are too many construction sites. Sainte-Catherine Street is a perfect example. If you didn’t have so many individual contracts, you wouldn't have one construction site detours you into another construction site and then into a third construction site.

 

Every weekend is hell but there’s no other way of doing it. The main problem is that we haven’t invested enough as a society and we’re playing catch up after so many bad years. There’s no other choice but to work on everything at the same time. It’s creating chaos and that’s part of a bigger problem.


Stay tuned for more interviews from MTL Blog!

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