Adopting a bargain

Members of the California Adopt-A-Highway program give local
thoroughfares a little TLC and save the state millions
As Ruth Breton and her husband drove home from the San Jose airport on a recent Wednesday afternoon, she looked out the window and noticed the road’s freshly cut grass exposing a sprinkling of trash. Time to go back, she thought.

Breton, a first grade teacher at Rucker Elementary School in Gilroy, visits this same stretch of road each month with other members of the town’s Baha’i community, picking up litter as part of the state’s Adopt-A-Highway program. She’s been doing it for the last three or four years, as close as she can recall, donning an orange vest and hardhat for one to two hours, usually early on a Sunday.

“In general, the teachings of the Baha’i faith are that we’re stewards of the Earth, and it’s our job to care for it,” said Breton. “We’re a small group, but this was something we could do.”

The 4,000 companies and individuals like Breton who have adopted much of the state’s highway system are saving California millions of dollars a year – $14.5 million to be exact. Together, they clean nearly 15,000 miles of road, freeing CalTrans workers to do other jobs, like fixing pot holes, landscaping and completing improvement projects.

Some highway benefactors, such as actor Robin Williams, adopt large stretches of highway and pay contracting services to clean them. Others, like the Baha’is, enroll in safety classes and, armed with pick sticks, agree to clean one-mile sections on a regular basis.

It’s not a glamorous job. Fast food wrappers, Styrofoam, cardboard, and parts left over from car crashes or side-of-the-road fixes litter the roadside, and occasionally bigger items migrate there. In a one-mile stretch along a single side of the highway, the Baha’i group usually picks up 15 to 20 bags of trash in a outing.

“There’s a $1,000 fine for littering, but the person who does it has to be seen in the act by the CHP,” said Bob Haus, state maintenance representative for the greater San Francisco Bay Area. “Then, they go to court and we have to make sure the judges enforce the fines. It doesn’t sound like much to toss a wrapper out of your car, but when you consider that, even with the Adopt-A-Highway program, the state has to spend $40 million per year picking up litter.”

Adopt-A-Highway volunteers clean, on average, about two-thirds of the state’s adoptable roadsides, bagging and leaving trash for CalTrans workers to pick up, said Terri Porter, the statewide coordinator for the Adopt-A-Highway program in Sacramento. Center medians are left to CalTrans maintenance crews since the areas are largely deemed too dangerous for civilian work, said Haus, who added that many of the median divides on the state’s highway system have been switched from metal to concrete barriers so that sweeper trucks can simply drive the routes rather than placing work crews at risk.

And despite the desire of some citizens to clean their roads, there are plenty of miles of highway that cannot be cleaned through the Adopt-A-Highway system, said Porter. This is usually for safety reasons, as a stretch of highway may be deemed too narrow, too steep or too inaccessible for volunteers to work over. And, sometimes, there simply isn’t enough litter in an area to warrant the program’s use.

“The amount of litter in an area really varies depending on what is going on on that highway,” said Haus. “If you go up to Coyote Creek Golf Drive, just north of Morgan Hill, there’s usually a lot of trash, but a lot of that is because the landfill is right there. It’s the same with 880. One of our biggest problems is uncovered or inappropriately covered trash trucks.”

In these areas, it can be nearly impossible to pick up all the trash that is thrown from vehicles. Haus relayed the story of one sanitation supervisor so fed up with the mess along his morning commute and so tired of CalTrans workers saying they’d just cleaned the area that he decided to personally go and clean a mile of roadway.

“When he got to the end, he turned around and it was like he hadn’t done anything at all,” said Haus.

It’s a problem that can make some businesses reticent to adopt highway sections, especially because their name is displayed in the area.

“The advertising can be kind of a double-edged sword,” said Haus. “Say you and your co-workers go and get the

road all cleaned up, and two days later it’s covered in trash. Chances are, there’s eventually going to be someone who calls you and says, ‘Why aren’t you cleaning the road?’ It can give the wrong impression, but I think most people don’t do it for the advertising. I think most of them really care.”

Still, every hand helps. If you are interested in adopting a section of highway, it’s best to do so as part of a group, said Haus. The required frequency for cleaning is decided based both on the size of your group and the blight level of your section, but plenty of areas are available.

For more information on how you can join the California Adopt-A-Highway program, visit