Getting Around: CDOT upgrades to straighten out kinks in bike route

Q&A tackles white paint on rails to washboard stretch on I-88

 Bike lanes on Harrison and State street intersection

A bicyclist navigates the new curved bike lanes painted on the Harrison and State street intersections in Chicago. (Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune / July 11, 2014)

Dear Getting Around: You've got mail.

Q: What's up with the new bike lanes on Harrison Street, where the lanes bend around State Street (because the east and west approaches to the intersection don't line up with each other)? I see that the city attempted to delineate separate spaces for cars and bicycles navigating around the bend, but as an urban design student who rides regularly on Harrison, I think a real solution involves more than green paint.

— Janet Peterson, email

A: Improvements to this difficult intersection are a work in progress, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation. Only the pavement striping has been completed. Other upgrades coming in the next few weeks will include special bike traffic signals that provide three seconds for bicyclists traveling in either direction on Harrison to enter the Harrison/State intersection — becoming visible to motorists — before drivers get a green light, according to CDOT. The signals are similar to the pedestrian leading-interval lights on some city streets that give pedestrians a head start through crosswalks before drivers can make right turns.

Buffer-protected bike lanes also will be part of the design to create a safety bubble for cyclists approaching and departing the intersection, as will signs alerting drivers turning right onto State to yield to bicyclists. The new bike lanes on Harrison are between Desplaines Street and Wabash Avenue. The almost-milelong stretch is part of an important bicycling route that connects the South Loop and the University of Illinois at Chicago campus.

"The bikeway improvements we are making to this unusual offset intersection will help not only cyclists better navigate through, but motorists and pedestrians will benefit from more clearly defined travel lanes and refreshed crosswalks,'' CDOT spokesman Pete Scales said.

Your Getting Around reporter made several test rides through the Harrison/State intersection Friday on a Divvy bike. The highly visible green pavement markings are a good start, but they alone don't get the job done.

My biggest gripe was about the traffic-control aide who was stationed in the intersection. He mostly stood in the bike lane, doing nothing, with arms at his side. During the hour I was riding and taking notes, vehicles on State frequently blocked the intersection — and the bike lanes — when the traffic signals on State turned red. It stranded cyclists entering the intersection on Harrison until the traffic backup cleared. Isn't one of the first lessons that the Chicago Traffic Management Authority teaches its employees, "Don't be a scarecrow"?

Q: While traveling in Italy, I noticed that on the train system the rails are painted white. My hunch was that it's done to reflect sunlight and help prevent the rails from expanding during hot temperatures, which could lead to derailments. When I inquired, I was told that's exactly the purpose. I believe a solution exists to improve safety on the CTA and Metra. The question I have for you is, will you present this idea to your contacts at CTA and Metra for comment?

— Jim Baltzerus, email

A: Your question about using paint to counteract rail expansion is timely. The Federal Railroad Administration is funding two studies that will look at the reduction in rail temperature using various heat-reflective coatings, including standard paints, modified paints and advanced inorganic coatings, said agency spokesman Mike England.

"The studies will research how effective and durable these coatings are and how they could best be used to improve railroad safety in the U.S.,'' England said.

Metra has heard of the practice, but the commuter rail agency hasn't studied it in great detail, officials said.

"We would have to analyze the costs and benefits before we could say if it would be a viable solution here,'' Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said.

The CTA is not aware of any studies that have shown that painting rails has a benefit that would exceed the cost, so the transit agency has no plans to make any changes, officials said.

CTA elevated and subway rail is jointed every 39 or 80 feet, which allows it to accommodate any minor expansion, CTA spokesman Brian Steele said. Grade-level and ballasted rail is typically welded into longer sections. He said it is extremely rare to see tracks expand in a way that would affect operations.

"On very rare occasions, typically when Chicago sees multiple days of sunny, 90-degree-plus weather, the CTA uses water trains that spray water on sections of track as a precaution,'' Steele said.

Your Getting Around reporter has noticed that on several freight lines in the Chicago region, some switches are painted white to help keep them cool and reduce thermal expansion.

Q: For years, the pavement on I-88 from approximately west of Illinois Route 59 to approximately the Fox River has been like a washboard. Vehicles bounced up and down. Recently the Illinois Tollway has been milling the pavement to make it smooth as opposed to replacing the pavement, and it works great. Also, the work has been done at night with minimum traffic disruption. I am curious as to what caused the previous condition and what type of equipment was used to do the milling.

John Sorensen, email

A: The washboard conditions on I-88 (Reagan Memorial Tollway) were caused by premature deterioration of an overlay resulting from poor ground conditions and experimental pavement techniques that have been abandoned, according to the toll authority.

A smooth ride has been restored thanks to diamond grinding, a process that removes a thin layer of concrete pavement to get rid of imperfections in the roadway surface. The new surface is also more skid-resistant, according to industry experts.

The $3.4 million tollway project, between the Aurora toll plaza and Route 59, is being completed by Penhall Co., officials said. Work began in the spring and is slated for completion in August.

"We thank customers for their patience enduring what has been a bumpy ride,'' tollway spokeswoman Wendy Abrams said.

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.

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