Paper streets in Pittsburgh can be difficult to maintain
A cyclist rides past the sinkhole after Pittsburgh's public works crews filled it in with recycled asphalt and marked it with a sawhorse.
1872 map of Pittsburgh.
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Charles Carthorn and his son, Chuckie, frequently ride their bikes over a favorite shortcut, a path sandwiched between the former Reizenstein Middle School and The Ellis School in Shadyside.
"We commute here by bike every day to football practice," said Mr. Carthorn, 42. "And this is our little shortcut."
As public officials urged cyclists to use side streets in light of two recent fatal bike accidents on Penn Avenue, the Carthorns' shortcut -- known in the cycling community as the Great Northeast Passage -- and others like it may have become more important than ever to cyclists.
But these shortcuts can have problems of their own.
Technically, the Great Northeast Passage isn't a real street. It's a paper street.
Paper streets are like unfinished thoughts: streets drawn on a map for a neighborhood but never adopted by the city. So no one really knows who's responsible for them when they need a major repair, as this one has off and on for several years. Is it the city? Nearby property owners?
According to Stanley Lederman, a lawyer for municipalities including Allegheny County, paper streets usually become the responsibility of the neighboring property owners.
"The paper street basically has a life of 21 years, under the current case law," Mr. Lederman said.
If a city makes no improvements to the street after 21 years, it is sliced down the center by an imaginary line. Properties on each side of the line automatically are responsible for the paper street.
And there's the meat of the problem. The neighboring property owners don't know they own a slice of the paper street.
The Pittsburgh Public Schools owns the now-empty Reizenstein building on one side of this particular paper street that has become a shortcut for bikers and runners. On the other side sits The Ellis School, a private all-girls academy.
Representatives of the schools indicated they do not own the paper street.
It's not unusual for neighboring property owners to be unaware of their responsibility, said Robert Kaczorowski, the director of public works for Pittsburgh. They think a paper street should be taken care of by the city, he said. There are about 19,000 street segments in the city of Pittsburgh, and about 1,000 of those exist only on paper.
Mr. Kaczorowski said his crews filled in a huge sinkhole on the street in March 2012. And just hours after PublicSource interviewed Mr. Kaczorowski for this story, his crews filled in the same 5-foot-wide hole again because it had reappeared.
Dan Gilman, chief of staff for Councilman Bill Peduto, a Democrat who represents the district, said there's a problem if it takes a reporter or city council office to get the problem fixed.
"The bottom line is it's dangerous to the public," Mr. Gilman said.
The sinkhole was reported to Pittsburgh officials at least once before.
In December 2010, Todd Derr, 40, reported the sinkhole to Pittsburgh's 311 nonemergency call center. The 311 department wrote in an email that Mr. Derr's complaint was referred to the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.
Today, the sinkhole is filled with crumbled bits of roadway that look like a pile of chocolate cookie crumbs.
But that's just a temporary fix.
Tom Leech, the superintendent of sewer operations for the sewer authority, said a damaged private sewer from the Ellis School is causing the sinkhole and the authority sent a letter to that effect to the school Sept. 12.
The damaged sewer will be removed in 2013, said Kitty Julian, director of communications for The Ellis School. That's when the school plans to expand its sports field and reroute bus traffic. It hopes to work with new neighbor Walnut Capital, a private developer that plans to develop the property where the now-empty Reizenstein School sits.
Walnut Capital officials told PublicSource that a bike and pedestrian path is a "high priority" as part of the development.
Mr. Carthorn said he hopes the shortcut will remain open to cyclists.
"I'm glad it's here. I just wish it could be a little better kept," he said. "Just so it will be safe."
First Published October 2, 2012 12:00 am