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The New Wilson ‘L’ Platform Will Be Massive – The Widest in the System

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A recent aerial view of the Wilson station. The old platform is on the left. The much wider new island platform is on the right. Photo: CTA

This morning the CTA celebrated the completion of more than 50 percent of the Wilson station reconstruction project, shortly after all customer boarding was moved to the recently completed west island platform. Now that both sides of the new platform are completed and the transit agency is working on demolishing the old one, you can get a sense of just how big the station will be when both island platforms are in place. The entire track and platform combo will be the widest in the system, dwarfing even the double-island-platform at the Belmont Red/Purple/Brown station.

This week the transit agency is beginning the third phase of the $203 million reconstruction project, which includes rebuilding the station house to make it wheelchair accessible and reconstructing all track structures next to the station. After Phase Three is completed in late 2017, the train stop will become a new transfer point between the Red and Purple lines.

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Looking north from the new platform this morning. Old platform is visible on the right. Photo: John Greenfield

At today’s press conference, 46th Ward alderman James Cappleman argued that the station project is already providing a shot in the arm to the local economy. He noted that about 50 percent of nearby residents don’t own cars, but they often leave the neighborhood to shop. However, Cappleman said the new station has encouraged 18 new businesses to open in the ward, noting that there will soon be four independently owned coffee shops on Wilson near the station.

CTA president Dorval Carter Jr. said the Wilson station rehab is the latest in several upcoming planned Red Line improvements, including the Red-Purple Modernization project and the south Red Line extension. He put in a word for the city’s proposal for a new Transit TIF (tax-increment financing) district along the north Red Line to help fund RPM improvements.

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Join Me for the Very First (Legal) Ride on the North Branch Trail Extension

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Toni Preckwinkle and other officials cut the ribbon on the trail this afternoon at Thaddeus S. “Ted” Lechowicz Woods, 5901 N. Central Ave. Photo: John Greenfield

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I’m happy to report that I got to take the maiden voyage on the northern half of theNorth Branch Trail extension this afternoon after officials cut the ribbon on the 1.8-mile stretch of off-street path. You can take a virtual spin on the trail with me by watching the video below. It’s probably not riveting viewing, and the recording stopped a little before I reached the end of the new stretch but it will give you an idea of what it’s like traveling on this high-quality facility.

The just-opened segment runs from Forest Glen to the southeast trailhead of the existing 18-mile North Branch Trail, which runs all the way north to the Chicago Botanic Gardens. Work is underway to build an additional 1.2 miles of path that will continue the trail southeast to Gompers Park near the the LaBaugh Woods and Irene C. Hernandez Picnic Grove at Foster Avenue.

“The Forest Preserves offer more than 300 miles of trails in Cook County, which serve as a gateway to nature,” said county board president Toni Preckwinkle in a statement. “We are proud to mark the completion of phase one of this extension, which will serve additional Chicago residents as well as those in eight neighboring suburbs.”

The first phase of the extension includes a ten-foot-wide asphalt trail and two new bridges; one over the North Branch of the Chicago River at Central Street, and another over Metra’s Milwaukee District North line tracks. There’s also a new crosswalk for the trail at Central Street, with a button-activated stoplight, by the Matthew Bieszczat Volunteer Resource Center, 6100 North Central Avenue.

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Manor Avenue Diverter Test Begins, Pro-Greenway Petition Launches

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Looking southeast at Wilson/Manor. Barricades prevent cut-through motor vehicle traffic on Manor but allow two-way bike traffic. Photo: John Greenfield

Yesterday the Chicago Department of Transportation launched a two-month test of traffic diverters at Wilson and Manor avenues as part of the planning process for the Manor Avenue Neighborhood Greenway in the 33rd Ward. Right now wooden barricades are being used to prohibit drivers from turning onto Manor from Wilson, or continuing directly on Manor between Montrose and Lawrence. If the trial is deemed successful, the barricades will be replaced with landscaped curb bump-outs.

The goal of the project is to eliminate cut-through traffic on Manor, creating safer conditions for walking and biking, plus a more pleasant environment for residents on the street. Other elements of the greenway project include raised crosswalks and concrete islands at Montrose and Lawrence Avenues to slow down motorists as they enter Manor, short stretches of green contraflow bike lane, and bike-and-chevron “sharrow” markings.

At community meetings for the project, some neighbors have said they didn’t like having their driving route options limited, and expressed concern that significant amounts of cut-through traffic would wind up on other nearby streets, reducing safety and quality of life along those roadways.

CDOT showed this rendering of how the traffic diverter. Previous versions used concrete to physically prevent going straight. Image: CDOT

CDOT rendering (looking northwest on Manor at Wilson) shows landscaped curb extensions that would prevent motorists from turning from Wilson onto Manor or continuing straight on Manor past Wilson. Image: CDOT

Someone has been circulating an anonymous flyer against the project in the Ravenswood Manor neighborhood. The next meeting of the 33rd Ward Transportation Action Committee (Streetsblog’s Steven Vance is a member) will be this Thursday, September 22. The flyer states, “If enough people voice their opposition to the plan, the temporary barricades [that] will be installed on September 19 will be removed.”

Local alderman Deb Mell, who currently supports testing the diverters, has said there’s no magic number of opponents needed to make her drop the pilot. However, if the vast majority of people who show up on Thursday are against the test, she might decide it’s politically necessary to call it off.

If you live in the neighborhood or hope to use the Manor greenway on a regular basis, you can show up to the TAC meeting to voice your support for continuing the traffic diverter pilot. The meeting takes place at the Horner Park field house, 2741 West Montrose, at 6:30 p.m. If you can’t make it, you can email comments to local alderman Deb Mell’s office at manorgreenway@gmail.com, and to CDOT at cdotbikes@cityofchicago.org. You can also call Mell’s office at 773-478-8040, or come to ward night on Mondays from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Fortunately, residents are also organizing in support of continuing the test. Jett Robinson started a Change.org petition calling for the city to go forward with the plan for a two-month test of the diverters. Robinson wrote:

In an effort to calm traffic, the plan redirects both north and southbound car traffic onto adjacent streets. This is a perfectly reasonable measure that has been studied by CDOT, along with competing proposals, and has been deemed the most effective by them. We ask that the steering committee, Alderman Mell, and CDOT retain this configuration.

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Eyes on the Street: CTA Tests Prepaid Boarding on the Loop Link BRT System

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Customers swiped their card at a portable Ventra reader before entering the waiting area. Photo: John Greenfield

Besides being the day Chicago was ranked the top biking city by bicycling magazine, September 19, 2016, may also go down in history as the day the Loop Link bus rapid transit system started getting faster. While the corridor, which debuted last December, seems to have been resulting in modest timesaving gains for bus riders, it’s been missing a key element of robust BRT: prepaid boarding. Today the CTA launched a test of this feature at the Madison/Dearborn station, the busiest of the Loop Link stops, and it appears to be working well.

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The pilot only runs during the evening rush. Photo: John Greenfield

In June the CTA launched a six-month test of prepaid boarding for westbound #77 Belmont Avenue buses departing from the Belmont station of the Blue Line’s O’Hare branch during evening rush hours. Riders pay their fares at a portable Ventra card reader, staffed by a customer assistant, and waiting in a fenced-off bullpen until the westbound bus shows up.

The system at Madison/Dearborn was simpler to set up, since the raised station was already surrounded by railings, except for the side of the platform the bus pulls up to and the entrances to the ramps on the east and west sides of the facility. For the downtown prepaid boarding pilot, which will run for from 3:00-6:30 p.m. on weekdays, for a three-month period, CTA staffers are stationed at each side of the shelter with Ventra readers.

During the pilot hours, customers may only pay their fares with Ventra card or ticket, or personal credit or debit card, not cash. The CTA is encouraging customers at Madison/Dearborn who need to add transit value or unlimited ride passes to their Ventra account to do so at the Ventra machine inside the Walgreens directly behind the platform. Other options for adding value include ‘L’ stations and the Ventra app.

As you can see by comparing the two videos below (the first one was shot a few days after the December launch), prepaid boarding significantly shortens the bus “dwell” time at the station. With onboard fare payment, it took about 30 seconds for 11 passengers to get on the bus, but with today it took only about 15 seconds for ten customers to board – a roughly 50-percent timesavings.

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Bicycling Gives Chicago the Award for Best Biking City – Do We Deserve It?

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The Bloomingdale Trail this morning. Photo: John Greenfield

This morning’s announcement that Bicycling magazine has ranked Chicago as the best cycling city in the U.S. in its biennial ratings, up from second place to New York in 2014, was surely a head-scratcher for many people who ride bikes in our city on a regular basis.

As of 2015, our bike mode share was a mere 1.7 percent of all trips to work, less than a quarter of Portland’s 7.2 percent mode share. While Chicago has built plenty of buffered and protected bike lanes, we don’t have a cohesive, intuitive network of low-stress bikeways, in contrast with Minneapolis, where it’s possible to bike from many neighborhoods to the central business district via off-street paths. Our conventional bike lanes are often clogged with illegally parked vehicles, torn up for utility work, or dangerously obstructed by construction projects. And then there’s the fact that four people were fatally struck by allegedly reckless drivers while biking in Chicago over a roughly two-month period this summer.

Still, I think one can make a case that, with all of the strides our city has made over the last five years to improve cycling, we do deserve an award as the large U.S. city that is doing the most things correctly to get more people on bikes and make cycling safer. Let’s look at some of the arguments for this point of view. Here’s the magazine’s top ten ranking for 2016:

  1. Chicago
  2. San Francisco
  3. Portland, OR
  4. New York
  5. Seattle
  6. Minneapolis
  7. Austin
  8. Cambridge, MA
  9. Washington, D.C.
  10. Boulder, CO

The Bicycling write-up of Chicago’s cycling strengths notes that the city built 100 miles of next-generation bike lanes within Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first term in office. Thankfully, they didn’t say that 100 miles of protected lanes were built, as the city has often claimed, but rather, “Emanuel made good on a promise to build 100 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes.” Even that’s not technically accurate, since Emanuel originally pledged to build 100 miles of physically protected lanes, and only wound up putting in 19.5 miles of PBLs, plus 83.5 miles of buffered lanes. Still, that was a major achievement.

The magazine also cites the Divvy bike-share system and the Divvy for Everyone equity program, the use of concrete curb protection for bike lanes (many new curb-protected lanes are currently planned), the upcoming 35th Street bike-ped bridge, and the in-progress construction of Big Marsh bike park as reasons for the ranking. The article doesn’t even mention the Bloomingdale Trail (aka The 606) elevated greenway, which many residents consider to be the shiniest new jewel in Chicago’s cycling crown.

Bicycling editor-in-chief Bill Strickland presented the award to Mayor Emanuel this morning during a ceremony in Humboldt Park’s Julia de Burgos Park, a Bloomingdale trailhead. During the presentation, Strickland called bicycle riders an “indicator species,” a sign that things are going right for a city in terms of the economy, traffic safety, congestion, and pollution. He also noted that bike lanes can help residents of underserved communities access jobs, and bikeways have an integrating effect, connecting people in diverse neighborhoods. “So for 2016, the city that most embodies this is Chicago,” he said.

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Strickland, right, presents the award to Emanuel. Active Trans’ Ron Burke is in green shirt. Photo: John Greenfield

Emanuel, who has often been accused of indifference towards the needs of underserved neighborhoods, especially in the wake of the LaQuan McDonald police shooting scandal, riffed on the theme of bike lanes as opportunity corridors. He noted that the city has contracted the bike equity group Slow Roll Chicago to promote the Divvy for Everyone program, which offers $5 first-year memberships to low-income residents.

“If we’re going to be the city we want to be… having Divvy in every part of the city, where everybody has a chance to participate, allows people to go through communities and feel like they’re a part, rather than apart, from Chicago,” Emanuel said.

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Sorry Tribune, the Transportation Lock Box Isn’t a Scam, It’s a Necessity

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We’re never going to get our infrastructure in a good state of repair if the Illinois Legislature keeps raiding transportation funding for other purposes. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

When it comes to opinion pieces about transportation issues, the Chicago Tribune has been publishing some doozies this month. First, in the wake of four bike fatalities allegedly caused by reckless drivers, an editorial in the paper advised cyclists to ride more carefully. Next they ran an op-ed from noted anti-bike crank John McCarron bemoaning the fact that drivers are supposed to look for cyclists before turning to ensure they don’t kill anyone.

Those articles were wrongheaded, but last week the Tribune ran an editorial that could have a very concrete negative effect. They’re urging Illinoisans to vote against the proposed Safe Roads Constitutional Amendment, which will be on the November 8 ballot. The proposal would create a “lock box” for state transportation funding, making it illegal for politicians to raid Illinois transportation dollars to cover budget shortfalls.

The editorial has right-wing Trib columnist and McCarron’s fellow bike troll John Kass’ fingerprints all over it – it even refers to his audience as “little voters,” just as Kass tauntingly refers to Chicagoans who bicycle as “little bicycle people.” The piece makes the argument that the amendment, a fairly innocuous piece of legislation that would protect funding for transit, pedestrian, and bike projects as well as roads, is the product of an unholy alliance between politicians, the road lobby, and organized labor.

The article argues that the bill is a devilish scheme by lawmakers to ensure that highway projects remain a road to riches for the construction companies and union workers that build them. In return, the crooked politicians can count on campaign donations continuing to roll in. Channeling Blagojevic, the Trib writes:

They want you to enshrine in the Illinois Constitution a perpetual payday for their loyal donors in road-building and organized labor. You could say they’ve all got this thing — this proposed amendment — and for them it’s … golden!

The paper goes on to say that transportation funding has only been diverted to other purposes because elected officials or their constituents decided it was necessary. “Or, at least as likely, because they have no self-control [about] overspending.”

“The Tribune has been making its point that the legislation hasn’t been doing it’s job,” responded Metropolitan Planning Council senior fellow Jim Reilly. “That’s precisely why we need the constitutional amendment. The state hasn’t had an adequate transportation fund in the first place, particularly for transit.

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Some Skepticism, Lots of Support for Funding Red Line Work With Transit TIF

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The proposed transit TIF district would run a half mile in either direction from the Red Line between Division and Devon. Image: CTA

At a public meeting Tuesday night, Department of Planning and Development and Chicago Transit Authority officials outlined plans for a new transit TIF district along the North Side Mainline ‘L’, which carries the Red and Purple lines. The proposed TIF (tax-increment finance district) would generate funds to help pay for the Red-Purple Modernization project.

At the meeting, representatives explained how transit TIFs work compared to traditional ones. The former are a brand-new funding tool that creates a dedicated revenue stream for public transportation projects in Chicago. Earlier this summer the Illinois legislature passed a bill legalizing the funding mechanism, only within the city limits.

The proposed North Side transit TIF would extend from Division Street to Devon Street, within a half-mile east and west of the Main Line, and it would last for 35 years. The TIF district bankroll Phase I of the two-phase modernization project, which includes the Red-Purple Bypass (aka the Belmont Flyover) and the reconstruction of the Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn, and Bryn Mawr Red Line stations. This will involve rebuilding the tracks and track structures, widening the platforms, and modernizing the station houses, including making them wheelchair accessible. Phase II would include other track improvements and station projects.

The transit TIF would be used to generate revenue to pay back a federal loan for the infrastructure. Since the improved transit service will raise local property values, which means more property tax revenue, the TIF allows some that transit-generated income to be capture and used for the loan payments.

Traditional TIFs, which also capture revenue from property tax increases for improvements within the TIF district, have been widely criticized for diverting tax revenue from the Chicago Public Schools. However, the transit TIF law requires that the proportion of tax revenue currently given to the CPS remains unchanged. After the school funding is allocated, 80 percent of the remaining revenue goes to the transit project and 20 percent to other taxing bodies.

Even after the officials discussed how the North Side transit TIF would function, there was still some confusion from attendees. More than once residents asked if property tax revenue would be diverted from schools, and whether funds from this TIF would be used for projects like the reconstruction of the Wilson Red/Purple Line station or the Clark/Division Red Line stop, which aren’t included in the RPM project.

43rd Ward Alderman Michelle Smith spoke briefly against the proposed transit TIF to loud applause from the audience. She argued that the proposal, which will be going before City Council this fall, was a rushed mechanism to pay for the project. She added ominously that this would be the first-ever TIF district in the ward.

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More Support Needed to Save Manor Avenue Traffic Diverter Test

CDOT showed this rendering of how the traffic diverter. Previous versions used concrete to physically prevent going straight. Image: CDOT

CDOT rendering (looking northwest on Manor at Wilson) shows landscaped curb extensions that would prevent motorists from turning from Wilson onto Manor or continuing straight on Manor past Wilson. Image: CDOT

The Chicago Department of Transportation’s proposal for a neighborhood greenway on Manor Avenue is endorsed by 33rd Ward alder Deb Mell and the ward’s Transportation Action Committee (I am a member of the TAC). But the initiative is facing fierce opposition from some Ravenswood Manor neighbors who object to plans for traffic diverters at Manor and Wilson Avenue that would eliminate cut-through traffic on Manor.

Unless more residents voice support for the diverters, the greenway project will be watered down and it won’t reach its full potential to make Manor safer and more pleasant for homeowners, people walking, and bike riders.

At last week’s Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council meeting, Mike Amsden was open about the fact that the greenway project, part of a larger plan to for an on-street bike route connecting a multi-use path in Horner Park with the North Shore Channel Trail, has been “controversial.” Starting next Monday, September 19, CDOT plans to test the diverters, which will prevent motorists from turning from Wilson onto Manor or crossing Wilson on Manor, using temporary infrastructure.

If the pilot is deemed successful, CDOT would install landscaped curb extensions to take the place of the temporary barriers. Other elements of the greenway project include raised crosswalks and concrete islands at Montrose and Lawrence Avenues to slow down motorists as they enter Manor.

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The Manor greenway would connect paths in Horner and Ronan Park (the North Shore Channel Trail). Image: Google Maps

“[The Manor greenway] is an incredible project that’s going to provide a really important connection between Horner Park and Ronan Park and serve as an extension between the river trails that are out there,” Amsden said. He also acknowledged that the plan has faced stiff resistance from some residents.

At community meetings for the project, some neighbors have said they didn’t like having their driving route options limited, and expressed concern that significant amounts of cut-through traffic would wind up on other nearby streets, reducing safety and quality of life along those roadways.

The purpose of the two-month test is to see what effect the diverters have on traffic levels on the surrounding street grid. CDOT has projected that some nearby streets would see a small increase in traffic, but that many drivers would simply stop using Ravenswood Manor as a pass-through between Montrose and Lawrence.

However, someone has been circulating a misleading flyer about the project in the neighborhood, which isn’t helping residents make informed decisions about the plan. “The closure will deprive all residents who live near Lawrence Avenue with one of the only thoroughfares [that] connects Lawrence to Montrose Avenue, and the majority of Albany Park to the rest of the city,” it states, disregarding that no blocks are being closed.

In addition to the fact there will still be options for traveling between the north and south segments of Manor, such as jogging west on Wilson and Francisco Avenue, there will still be plenty of other options for traveling between Lawrence and Montrose in the vicinity. Within the mile-wide stretch between Kedzie and Western Avenues there are three other continuous north-south routes connecting Lawrence and Montrose: Albany Ave. (northbound), Rockwell St. (southbound), and Campbell Ave. (southbound).

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The Wait Is Almost Over: The Loop Link Prepaid Boarding Pilot Starts Monday

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The three-month prepaid boarding pilot will take place at the Madison/Dearborn station, which has a Walgreens with a Ventra machine right behind it. Photo: Google Street View

Since it launched last December, the Loop Link bus rapid transit system’s timesaving benefits have been modest, but they’re about to improve. The CTA just announced that this Monday, September 19, it’s starting a three-month test of prepaid boarding — in which customers pay their fare before the bus arrives — at the BRT system’s Madison/Dearborn station.

For several months after the December launch, the CTA required bus drivers to creep towards the raised stations at 3 mph in order to avoid striking waiting customers with side-view mirrors or crashing into the platforms. In recent months the transit agency lifted that overly cautious requirement.

Unauthorized vehicles in the red bus-only lanes – especially private shuttle buses – certainly aren’t helping Loop Link speeds. The #NotaCTABus social media campaign has raised awareness of the problem, so hopefully we’ll see some action from the city to address the issue in the near future.

But this latest announcement is the next step towards Loop Link reaching its full potential. Having passengers pay their fares before boarding the bus eliminates the delay caused by a line of riders having to swipe their Ventra card (perhaps multiple times) or put cash in the fare box while the bus waits.

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A sign at Madison/Dearborn notifying customers of the upcoming pilot. Photo: Kevin Zolkiewicz

Prepaid boarding is one of the key timesaving elements of BRT, and originally it was anticipated that Loop Link would launch with this feature at all eight stations. But in 2014, before construction on the corridor began, the city revealed that it planned to initially implement prepaid boarding only at Madison/Dearborn.

And in fall 2015, the city announced that prepaid boarding wouldn’t even be in place at that station in time for the system’s December debut. Instead, the CTA planned to pilot it at Madison/Dearborn sometime this summer. Monday is a couple of days before the fall equinox, so they’re the agency is just barely keeping its promise.

Meanwhile, in June the CTA launched a six-month test of prepaid boarding for westbound #77 Belmont Avenue buses departing from the Belmont station of the Blue Line’s O’Hare branch, only during evening rush hours. Riders pay their fares at a portable Ventra card reader, staffed by a customer assistant, and waiting in a fenced-off bullpen until the westbound bus shows up.

At that point, since everyone has paid the fare already, passengers can quickly board through both the front and rear bus doors. Customers I interviewed said they were pleased with the timesaving effect of the new style of boarding.

Some BRT systems in other cities, such as Mexico City, have turnstiles with fare card readers and enclosed platform stations where you wait until a bus shows up, similar to how payment on a subway works. New York’s Select bus routes feature kiosks where you buy a paper ticket while waiting for the bus, which you must present when the occasional onboard inspection occurs or else face a stiff fine.

Since the primitive, labor-intensive system at Belmont seems to be reasonably effective, the CTA is trying it at Madison/Dearborn from 3:00-6:30 p.m. on weekdays, for a three-month test period.

“By allowing CTA bus customers to pay fares in advance much like they do to ride the “L”, we will be able to determine how much more quickly customers are able to board buses and how bus service reliability is improved,” said CTA President Dorval Carter in a statement.

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CDOT Has a Full Plate of New and Upgraded Bike Lane Infrastructure

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CDOT is working on a new design for the intersection of Cortland Street and Marshfield Avenue near the eastern entrance to the Bloomingdale Trail.

During last week’s Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council meeting Chicago Department of Transportation staffers shared a number of updates on the city’s bike network.

At the event, CDOT planner Mike Amsden, who manages the department’s bikeways program, explained how funds from Blue Cross Blue Shield’s $12 million sponsorship of the Divvy bike-share system are helping to pay for bike lane maintenance.

While new Chicago bikeways are often paid for by federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement grants, this money can’t be used to repair existing bike lanes. Therefore funding for restriping faded lanes has to be cobbled together from various sources, which is why many bikeways shown on the city’s bike map are actually faded to near-invisibility.

A primary source for bike lane maintenance is CDOT’s Arterial Resurfacing program, paid for by state and federal funds. When a street is repaved through this program, CDOT will use the funding to restripe existing bike lanes or, if deemed appropriate, add new bikeways.

Another potential funding source for restriping is the $1.32 million in discretionary “menu” money allocated annually to each of Chicago’s 50 wards, but only a fraction of the wards have opted to spend the funding that way. From 2012 to 2015, only nine aldermen or participatory budgeting elections allocated menu money for bike lane restriping or construction, spending a grand total of less than $1 million, according to a review of menu expenditures posted on the city’s Office of Management and Budget website. That was less than 0.4 percent of the $264 million in menu funds available to all 50 aldermen during that four-year period.

Fortunately, in recent years CDOT has been using a significant amount of the Blue Cross sponsorship for bike lane maintence. From 2014 (when sponsorship started) to 2016, about $2 million of that $12 million has been earmarked for restriping, according to CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey. He said that those funds pay for restriping of all markings on the affected street – including crosswalks and center-line stripes as well as the bike lanes – “to make it safer for everyone.” Read more…