When is a street no longer a street?
That question bounced around my mind last week, when I first rolled over the collection of potholes, crevices and craters known as 33rd Avenue Southeast in Minneapolis. I had been summoned to this industrial neighborhood by a frustrated Scott Braaten of Twin City Die Castings, one of a half dozen businesses that rely on the ravaged road.
"Why doesn't the city fix it?" Braaten wrote to Whistleblower. "Why do they keep ignoring the complaints?
Braaten wasn't talking about a few divots. This unpaved quarter-mile is likely the worst street in Minneapolis.
It might be politics. It might be stingy property owners. But about 6 miles of the city's 1,000-plus miles of streets have never been paved. Take a winter with rampant freeze-thaw cycles, add a constant pounding by dump trucks and tractor trailers and an unpaved street resembles the surface of the moon.
"This thing is in terrible shape," said Bob Carlson, a city transportation engineer. "I've not seen anything this bad anywhere in the city."
Minneapolis plans to pave the street, at a cost of $4.3 million, starting next spring. Yet business owners and others who work there say past promises of a permanent fix washed away like the asphalt periodically dumped into its voids.
No one lives on 33rd Avenue SE. It's home to a steel supply warehouse, a garbage hauler, a printing company, an aluminum die casting factory and other industries. Workers say the road has knocked mufflers off their cars and ruined their suspensions. Several report that protruding railroad tracks routinely rip the landing pads off semitrailers.
I didn't want to wreck my own vehicle investigating this situation. So last week, I signed out a company car, a 1996 Dodge Stratus with two dented back doors, and steered toward Minneapolis's Como neighborhood.
At first glance, the street looked paved. That's an illusion created by years of oil applied to it. The largest collection of craters congregated near the intersection of Como Avenue. One, roughly the shape of Australia, held enough water for a respectable kiddie pool. In an adjacent hole, someone had dumped a half dozen pieces of lumber.
"Who's the idiot who threw the wood in there?" asked Scott Brodala, who works at Viking Materials, the steel supplier.
Heading north, I saw an abandoned railroad track jutting out of the street like a splinter. The active tracks, which hid a deep gully, were even more frightening. I slowed down and looked for a way through. WHAM! My company car scraped bottom.
Moving up the hill, I spotted a piece of someone's bumper by the side of the road near Talmage Avenue. Where 33rd approaches Hennepin Avenue, the street degenerated into furrows, ripples and ridges. Cars were driving on the wrong side of the road, and now I could see why -- they didn't want to risk their vehicles by trying to cross this mess.
When workers saw me examining the potholes, several stopped work to tell me their stories. Mike Burton of Twin City Die Castings said his company doesn't double-stack pallets in its trucks for fear the wheels will hit a pothole and the aluminum castings will topple. Brodala said he's seen people walk into Viking Materials to ask for help removing bumpers knocked loose by the holes.
Workers made predictions of more dire possibilities. What if a motorcycle hit a piece of loose train track? What if someone unfamiliar with the area cuts through at night at high speed?
We all know who pays when someone's life, limb or property is damaged on city property: We do.
The day after Whistleblower's visit to 33rd Avenue, city crews showed up and dumped 17 tons of asphalt to fill up the worst holes. The city's street maintenance director, Mike Kennedy, called the timing of the repairs "happenstance." But Kennedy acknowledged the patches probably wouldn't stay put for long.
"It's truly a dirt street. There's no permanent patching that you can make stick," he said.
By Friday, the roof of one of the newly filled potholes was starting to sag. The exposed train track was encased in asphalt but still sprang up when I drove over it. Nevertheless, the city's worst pothole collection is once again something like a street. For now.