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Construction Cycle: CDOT Has a Lot on Its Plate This Summer

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Dumping infill to build out the Chicago Riverwalk. Photo: John Greenfield

[This piece also ran in Checkerboard City, John's column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

If 2013 was Chicago’s Long, Hot Summer of Transportation, then 2014 is the Summer of the Big Projects. Last year featured well-publicized game changers like the South Red Line rehab and the Divvy bike-share launch, but this year’s initiatives might not be so obvious to casual observers. That’s partly due to the changing of the guard at the Chicago Department of Transportation.

After forward-thinking, sharply-dressed commissioner Gabe Klein stepped down in November, he was replaced by the CTA’s head planner, Rebekah Scheinfeld, who’s only the second female chief in CDOT history. While her management and sartorial style is lower key than Klein’s, she’s no less progressive. “A lot got kicked off in the last two-and-a-half years,” she recently told me. “My goal is to continue that momentum, to make sure that we are bringing these projects in on time and on budget.”

One planned initiative whose future is somewhat beyond Scheinfeld’s control is the expansion of Divvy from its current 300 docking stations to 475. In January, Montreal-based Bixi, which provides the bikes and stations for the system, declared bankruptcy, putting the supply chain in jeopardy. However, Alta Bicycle Share, which runs Divvy for CDOT, is looking into alternative suppliers in case Bixi goes belly-up, and Scheinfeld says she expects the city will meet its expansion goals this year.

CDOT is currently moving forward with Rahm Emanuel’s plan to build 100 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes within his first term. As of this spring, Chicago had about thirty-one miles of buffered lanes and roughly seventeen miles of protected lanes, by the Active Transportation Alliance’s count. The city has announced plans to install five more miles of PBLs this summer on Broadway (Montrose to Foster), Harrison (Desplaines to Wabash), and Lake (Austin to Central Park). Fifteen miles of new buffered lanes are planned, and new bikeways on Clybourn, Kedzie, Leland and Randolph may also get built this year.

The Navy Pier Flyover, a series of sixteen-foot-wide ramps and bridges, will solve the problem of the dangerous bottleneck at the center of the 18.5-mile Lakefront Trail. At $60 million, mostly federally funded, and featuring Cadillac-level infrastructure, it will be the most expensive single bike project in Illinois history and a symbol of Chicago’s commitment to better cycling. Construction started in March, but it won’t wrap up until 2018.

Another massive infrastructure project that’s in the thick of construction is the long-awaited Bloomingdale Trail, aka The 606. Since the nineties, Northwest Side residents have lobbied the city to convert the Bloomingdale rail line into a 2.7-mile elevated greenway and linear park, and now their dream is finally coming true. The basic trail, slated to open this fall, will cost about $54 million, largely bankrolled with federal dollars. Project manager the Trust for Public Land is working on raising an additional $40-$50 million to pay for building parks at the access points, plus enhancements like playgrounds, landscaping and art.

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Planning Study for Finkl Steel Site Needs to Consider Transit and Biking

Biking past A. Finkl & Sons Steel

The redevelopment plan for the Finkl site should strengthen transit and bike routes and make connections to future projects.

With Finkl & Sons Steel vacating 22 acres along Cortland Street between Clybourn Avenue and the Chicago River, the U.S. Environental Protection Agency has given the economic development corporation North Branch Works $200,000 to create a plan that keeps the area industrial. As part of this process, it’s important for walking, biking, and transit to be integrated into the plan.

The site is surrounded by retail, commercial offices, and residences. Its streets should be important connections in the bike and bus network, but currently fall short of their potential. As Doug Farr, urban designer at Farr Associates, told Crain’s, ”Land use and mobility always have to go together.” Transportation to and through the area needs to be examined.

Cortland is a well-used east-west bike route through the Finkl property between Lincoln Park on the east and Wicker Park to the west, and between Lincoln Park and the Elston Avenue bike lane. The Armitage Avenue bus runs on Cortland through the industrial zone in order to cross the river but there’s no bus route on Clybourn. Bus service on the street was eliminated in 1997, and a planning study to re-establish a bus route on Clybourn, from the North/Division Red Line station to the Logan Square Blue Line station, concluded last month that the CTA doesn’t have sufficient local funds to match federal funds.

Michelle Stenzel, co-leader for BikeWalk Lincoln Park told me that the area “could be incredibly vibrant and needs to be done right.”

She considered all of the existing transportation assets in the “Clybourn/Elston/Armitage/Cortland confluence” — the two-line Metra station at Armitage and Cortland, Divvy stations — and those that are coming soon. There will be an extension of the protected bike lane on Elston (a spoke route in the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020), the Ashland BRT stop at the Metra station, and the east end of the Bloomingdale Trail, currently under construction, which will stretch 2.7 miles west.

Stenzel added that site redevelopment needs to improve access to the Chicago River. This shouldn’t be an issue, as city law — on the books since 1983 — requires that any development along the river be set back 30 feet and provide “public waterfront paths, plazas, overlooks, esplanades and access points where appropriate.”

North Branch Works needs to use the two-year redevelopment planning process to take advantage of the Finkl site’s potential in Chicago’s transportation network, ensuring excellent links to the city’s bike and transit routes.