Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
New regulations are in place, and the 18-month moratorium on new Adopt-A-Highway applications has been lifted.

Adopt-A-Highway Program Running on All Cylinders
by  Kelly Markham
Issue Date: 02/2010

New regulations are in place, and the 18-month moratorium on new Adopt-A-Highway applications has been lifted. Litter, take heed.

Freeway beautification enthusiasts, rejoice! After a lawsuit involving the Minutemen of San Diego sidelined the program in 2008, Adopt-A-Highway is once again issuing permits to groups who want to help spiff up freeway landscapes. On January 21, 2010, the Adopt-A-Highway regulations were approved by the Office of Administrative Law, and the moratorium was lifted.

During the moratorium, the program was still running. “We never stopped,” said Adopt-A-Highway Coordinator Steve Mellinger, who oversees the program in District 7 with fellow Coordinator Doug Johnson. “We weren’t issuing new permits, but everyone with a current permit was still working. We’re now clearing the backlog of permits that expired during the 18-month moratorium. Then we’ll start processing new applications.”

Same Program, New Regs

Adopt-A-Highway program coordinators developed regulations using the existing guidelines. The participant approval process has been tweaked and appeals processes have been added, but for the most part, the 20-year-old program is unchanged for participants.

In District 7, almost 170 groups participate in Adopt-A-Highway, including businesses, civic groups, schools, individuals, nonprofits, and government agencies. Although most groups choose to pick up litter along two miles of adopted highway, they can also contribute in other ways, such as weeding, planting flowers and removing graffiti.

Participation in the Adopt-A-Highway Program as a litter removal group costs nothing – other than the sweat equity involved in cleaning up a couple miles of freeway once or twice a month. In return, they get a simple courtesy sign recognizing their work, an encroachment permit, safety training, safety gear, and litter bags from Caltrans. Those groups with more money than time can pay a contractor to perform the work for them. They can also purchase a custom recognition panel with the group’s logo. All signs must be approved by Caltrans.

“We want to make it clear that these signs are intended to recognize the group, not to provide advertising,” said Mellinger.

Trendy Trash

When applying for a permit, which is good for five years, applicants can specify the location they’d like to adopt. Popular areas, such as the Hollywood Freeway (US-101), the Golden State Freeway (I-5), and the San Diego Freeway (I-405), have waiting lists with hundreds of groups in the queue. It can take many years to reach the top of the list for a trendy stretch of freeway in District 7. Want to adopt the Santa Monica Freeway near Vermont Avenue? Get in line.

On the other hand, there are plenty of sites available on stretches of, say, SR-33, which gets almost no love from persnickety adopters. Granted, SR-33 is rural and doesn’t have the high traffic counts of some of the more popular routes, but as trash collecting goes, it's a cushy gig. And SR-33 has a lot of company. Overall, about 50% of available litter locations are in need of adopters.

Caltrans’ Refuse Resource

For the most part, groups do a decent job of keeping their stretches of freeway clean – though the level of dedication varies. Maintenance supervisors perform spot checks to ensure that adopters aren’t neglecting their locations. Some groups lose interest and allow trash to pile up, the courtesy sign advertising their lack of commitment. If this happens, the group is given two written warnings. If they don’t shape up, their permit will be revoked, their sign taken down, and their stretch of freeway will be available to other adopters.

Those who participate in the Adopt-A-Highway Program and take the commitment seriously provide a valuable service – not just to Caltrans but to the people of California. Their services save taxpayers millions of dollars every year.

“The trash builds up in a hurry,” said Johnson. “This program is a really good resource to augment our maintenance efforts.”

After District 7 Adopt-A-Highway program coordinators clear the backlog of permits that expired during the 18-month moratorium, they’ll begin processing new applications. About 170 groups –- including Atheists United –- participate in the Adopt-A-Highway Program in District 7. The services provided by these volunteers save taxpayers millions of dollars every year. Adopt-A-Highway signs are not intended to be forum for advertising or public discourse. Only the name and/or logo of the adopter is displayed. Participants in the program receive thorough safety training before beginning work.