In Pittsburgh’s late summer, Charles Carthorn and his son, Chuckie, rode their bikes over a favorite shortcut, a path sandwiched between the former Reizenstein Middle School and The Ellis School.
“We commute here by bike every day to football practice,” said Charles Carthorn, 42. “And this is our little shortcut.”
But he worried that 12-year-old Chuckie might be tempted to jump over a five-foot wide sinkhole on the path that looks as if it would gobble up about one-third of an adult bike.
“When he sees something like this, he wants to jump it,” Carthorn said of his son, who has been racing bikes for nearly half of his life. “I want to see him try it,” he said with a laugh, “but I don’t want him to do it because it looks kind of dangerous.”
The surrounding streets, however, are an even greater gamble for cyclists.
Two fatal bike accidents recently occurred on Penn Avenue, less than two miles from Mellon Park where Chuckie plays football. One cyclist was killed by a hit-and-run driver in Point Breeze, on Penn Avenue near the East End Food Co-op. The second was struck by an SUV just a few days later, on a stretch of Penn Avenue near the border of Wilkinsburg.
As public officials urged cyclists to use side streets in light of the fatalities, the Carthorns’ shortcut -- known in the cycling community as the Great Northeast Passage -- may have become more important than ever.
Technically, their shortcut isn’t a real street. It’s a paper street.
Paper streets are like unfinished thoughts: Streets that were drawn on a map for a neighborhood, but were never adopted by the city. So no one really knows who’s responsible for the paper street. Is it the city? The 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,” Lederman said.
If a city makes no improvements to the street, such as adding curbs or streetlights, after 21 years, it is sliced down the center by an imaginary dotted 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.
Who owns the 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.
Kaczorowski said his crews filled in the sinkhole in March 2012. And just hours after PublicSource interviewed Kaczorowski, his crews filled it in again.
Dan Gilman, chief of staff for Councilman Bill Peduto, a Democrat who represents the district, commended Kaczorowski “for taking quick action.” But, he 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,” 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 non-emergency call center. Derr, a software engineer in Google’s Bakery Square offices, said the sinkhole has been a topic of discussion on the Bike Pittsburgh message board. But he “never saw any sign of repair or attempted repair,” he wrote in an e-mail.
The 311 department wrote in an email that Derr’s complaint was referred to the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA).
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.
A safer path?
Tom Leech, the superintendent of sewer operations for the PWSA, has worked on public infrastructure for 28 years.
Leech said a damaged private sewer is causing the sinkhole. PWSA’s sewers are all in good condition, which was recently confirmed by an inspection of their sewers in the area.
It’s likely the sinkhole will reappear. The damaged private sewer, which runs right under the sinkhole, is like a straw that will keep sucking bits of the dirt from the sinkhole.
Leech guessed the owner of the damaged sewer could be facing $3,000 to $10,000 in repairs.
“It’s possible [the sinkhole] could wash out and reappear,” he said, “But that’s actually the owner’s responsibility to maintain it and keep it safe.”
PWSA sent a letter on September 12 to The Ellis School to notify them that their damaged sewer is causing the sinkhole.
The damaged sewer will be removed in 2013, said Kitty Julian, director of communications for The Ellis School. School officials plan to expand the sports field and reroute bus traffic. They hope to work with their new neighbor, Walnut Capital, a private developer that plans to develop the property where the now-empty Reizenstein School sits.
Walnut Capital told PublicSource the bike and pedestrian path is a "high priority."
"We'd be delighted if there was also a pedestrian and bike pathway as well," Julian said.
Charles 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.”
Emily DeMarco can be reached at 412.315.0262 or firstname.lastname@example.org.