Want To Adopt a Highway? Here’s How the Iconic Program Really Works

Beginning in Texas, the Adopt-a-Highway program has expanded to 49 states—but not without its share of controversies.

byStef Schrader| PUBLISHED Nov 9, 2022 11:00 AM
Want To Adopt a Highway? Here’s How the Iconic Program Really Works
Texas Department of Transportation
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Adopt-a-Highway signs are a ubiquitous fixture on United States roadways, and there's a good reason why: States save millions of dollars each year by turning over trash pickup to groups that actually want to pitch in. 

According to the Texas Department of Transportation, where the program originated, 49 other states have taken up Adopt-a-Highway programs by name. The lone outlier—Vermont—hosts a statewide Green Up Day on the first Saturday in May without the individual adoptions, but with similar aims: hand out bags, and let volunteers pitch in to clean up roadside areas. Adopt-a-Highway programs aren't just limited to the U.S., either, as Canada, Mexico, Great Britain, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia have their own programs as well. 

It's also led to the creation of similar initiatives. Some counties and cities now offer similar Adopt-a-Road and Adopt-a-Street programs for roads that fall under their domain. There are also Sponsor A Highway programs for businesses and organizations that may not want to get their hands dirty, but that want to pay for the maintenance on a stretch of road in exchange for recognition on a sign. You can adopt parks, creeks, beaches, and other spots that need periodic cleanup, too, should you deem one of those a more appropriate place for your group to get involved. 

An Adopt-A-Highway sign in front of housing projects in New York City reads "LITTER REMOVAL NEXT 1 MILE" and "COLOR CARTON." The Adopt-A-Highway program allows local organizations to "adopt" a section of road to clean and maintain. James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images

Adopt-a-Highway's creator never expected the program to get so big. We cannot discount how it normalized the idea of a volunteer-led clean-up, leading to cleaner spaces off the highways, too. And what started as a local program coordinated through a regional branch of the Texas Department of Transportation has been the subject of more controversy than you might expect over the years, even leading to a Supreme Court ruling on who can participate. Yet, when a program solves a near-universal problem in a clever way, it's not hard to see why it would spread far and wide. 

How It Started

The idea for Adopt-a-Highway began in perhaps the most Texan way possible: Litter flew out of someone's pickup bed, and that really angered the person behind it. That person happened to be Texas Department of Transportation engineer James R. "Bobby" Evans. 

In the ‘60s, litter cleanup was something maintenance engineers did on rainy days when nothing else could be done. "We'd have our gifted employees pick up trash all day long, which was very demeaning, and it bothered me a lot," Evans told C-Span in a 2018 interview. The state had even produced a film called Money to Burn to show civic groups about the cost of picking up roadside trash, which Evans said had more of an effect on him than it did on the general public. To some folks, the world was just their wastebasket, regardless of how many times the state said no. 

Left: Keep Texas Beautiful Executive Director Suzanne Kho; Right: James R. "Bobby" Evans. Texas Department of Transportation

"I've seen ranchers go down the road with feed sacks coming out of their car. I've seen people stop at McDonald's and toss the bag. I've seen people throw beer cans out their window. It bothers me. It bothers me a lot—and especially since we had to clean it up," Evans said. "I did not appreciate people calling me up and telling me my highway was dirty, [and to] go do something about it."

Evans had more skin in the game, though—he was the one picking that trash up. If other Texans would pitch in on the cleanup as he did, perhaps they would also think twice before tossing empties out of their trucks. The public needed to get involved.

"I had to give a speech to a civic club, and had a portion of that speech [where] I challenged [the audience] to adopt a highway to get rid of the obscenity of litter," Evans told C-Span. "Of course, that was just a part of my speech, and I didn't expect anybody to jump up and do anything, but the more I thought about that—that might be something we could try." 

Evans called the local Chamber of Commerce, who invited one of Evans' colleagues, Billy Black, to make a presentation to a convention of area garden clubs. Black served as Public Information Officer for the Tyler region of the Texas Department of Transportation—or TxDOT—and took an early role in developing the program into what we know today—signs, cleanup schedules, and all—per the Tyler Morning Telegraph

Adopt-a-Highway was born on March 9, 1985, when its first sign went up on a stretch of U.S. Highway 69 just north of Loop 323 in Tyler, Texas. Black's speech inspired the Tyler Civitan Club to become the program's first participants, and the rest is history. Today, this stretch of road has an additional sign marking it as the "First Adopt-a-Highway in the world." 

The first Adopt-a-Highway sign. Texas Department of Transportation

Having roadside signs to recognize groups who participated in Adopt-a-Highway was a stroke of brilliance. It got other groups' attention, who then called and inquired about adopting their own highways. Soon, Evans was fielding calls from neighboring TxDOT regions and other states that also wanted to implement the program. Over 50 other groups had signed up to adopt highways within mere months of the Tyler Civitan Club's sign going up, according to the Tyler Morning Telegraph. From there, the idea spread internationally. 

"It was just a program whose time had come," Evans told C-Span. "People wanted to get involved. They wanted to volunteer, and I still say the secret was giving people credit for what they were doing [on a] big sign. A lot of people criticized us, [saying] that the sign's too big, but you know what we told 'em is, you never saw a statue erected to a critic.”

Evans never expected Adopt-a-Highway to catch on worldwide, but is glad it has. "I feel really good that this is a legacy I can leave to my children and grandchildren," he said. "Certainly, we didn't envision it to go worldwide when we started. Our thoughts were, 'Let's clean up Tyler, Texas.' It's just amazing what's happened."

How It Works

I've participated in an Adopt-a-Highway cleanup in Texas—plus a similar Adopt-a-Street cleanup in Washington—and it's about as simple as it gets. The government entity you're working with provides the essentials like safety vests and trash bags, and then cuts you loose on your stretch of road to do the actual cleanup. There's generally a quick safety chat beforehand on where to pick up, what to pick up, and what to be extra careful about, sometimes in the form of an endearingly cheesy training video. Your group neatly piles the garbage in bags alongside the road, and someone from the state, city, or county hosting your cleanup program then hauls off these bags of garbage afterward. 

Watch where you step. Fire ants and poison ivy—that's Florida!

In return, your group gets its name on one of those ubiquitous signs. States typically have some rules as to what they allow on these signs, with Texas calling out the names and titles of elected officials, slogans, contact information, advertisements, and names of groups that could influence the outcome of legislative action or elections as being expressly verboten. While a group does get some recognition by default, it's clear that most states don't want highway cleanup signs to turn into ads. Some states allow company logos, while others do not. Simple white text prefixed by "Employees of," "In Memory of" or "Members of" is common for this reason. 

Adopt-a-Highway programs differ slightly from state to state, but most I've encountered are run through a state's Department of Transportation, and you can sign up from there. Adoptions usually last between two to four years with an option to renew if your group is in good standing, according to legal website Cake. In Texas, for example, the state will let you adopt a two-mile stretch of highway for two years, with the expectation that your group will clean it up roughly four times per year. 

Some states allow individuals to adopt, while others don't. Some states charge a fee for the sign to be erected, and a few states mandate that you pay for a state-licensed cleanup crew instead of doing the cleanup yourself, Cake notes. If you want to chip in on a stretch of highway but can't do the work yourself, hiring a cleanup crew typically costs between $200 and $600. 

Adopt-a-Highway is such a popular program because it's a bit of a win-win for everyone. I know I've walked away from trash pickups with less of an incentive to litter knowing that someone, somewhere out there will have to pick it up. It's also pretty satisfying to look back at a clean stretch of road once you're done. There's a psychological effect to it, too: people are less likely to feel like it's OK to litter when they don't see a lot of it on the road. 

Two men working for an adopt a highway campaign. Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
American Petroleum Institute Adopt a Highway sign near Shafter. San Joaquin Valley, California. Getty Images

On the state's side, it takes minimal investment to give a group everything they need to do a trash pickup. Highways get adopted by unpaid volunteers, after all. The take rate is pretty solid. TxDOT says about 8% of the state's roads—some 6,800 miles—are cleaned up by Adopt-a-Highway volunteers in roughly 3,400 different groups. The program saves the state some $5 million in highway maintenance costs each year, per the Tyler Morning Telegraph. Today, TxDOT says there are nearly 90,000 groups worldwide participating in Adopt-a-Highway cleanups. 

There are some notable restrictions on the program. Most states won't allow volunteer clean-ups on particularly dangerous stretches of road, such as roads with poor sight lines or high-speed interstate freeways. 

Likewise, many states have some discretion over who they let participate in the program, and how. For example, Texas' Adopt-a-Highway FAQ notes, "TxDOT may deny a request to adopt a section of highway if, in its opinion, granting the request would jeopardize the program, be counterproductive to its purpose, or create a hazard to the safety of the traveling public." Believe it or not, adopted highways have been more contentious over the years than you might think. 

Controversies

Adopt-a-Highway may be a wholesome idea at its heart, but that doesn't mean it hasn't attracted groups with ulterior motives or less-than-altruistic purposes over the years. It’s even resulted in a Supreme Court decision over who can be allowed to participate. 

The most amusing example of an ulterior motive at play came courtesy of the anti-government surveillance group Restore the Fourth, which adopted a stretch of Utah's State Road 68 in 2013, reported the Tyler Morning Telegraph. This road ran through a National Guard base that housed a then-new $1.7 billion National Security Agency data storage center. The NSA’s heavily fortified data center in Utah was set to be the largest of its kind, and government officials really didn't want the public digging into it. 

Restore the Fourth had been kicked off of this stretch of road before it decided to adopt it for cleanup, per KUTV. So, Restore the Fourth members turned their Adopt-a-Highway cleanup into a protest, carrying picket signs as they fulfilled their duty to clean up the road with the perfectly legal right to be there. The Utah Department of Transportation even welcomed the fact that they were keeping the road clean. 

Some highway adopters have rustled the feathers of more than just the NSA. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation defended its decision to allow a Pittsburgh-area strip club to sponsor highway cleanups after some called into question the appropriateness of advertising such a business on state signs, CBS News reported. 

The most controversial—and frequently litigious—participants have always been hate groups, who have used the program to advertise their presence as well as attempt to rehab their public image. One lawsuit that tried to bar the KKK from adopting a highway in Missouri made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 2005, which ruled that it would violate the First Amendment for states to bar a group from adopting a highway based on the group's main purpose. Missouri initially denied the KKK's Adopt-a-Highway application under rules that barred groups that have a history of violence or that deny membership based on race, the Associated Press reported. The KKK was later kicked out of the program anyway for failing to perform trash pickups as agreed. 

States have other ways to discourage hate groups from gaining too much notoriety through Adopt-a-Highway programs, including rules on signage. Oregon will only pay to make one sign for any group participating in its Adopt-a-Highway program, the Associated Press noted. After the American Nazi Party's initial Adopt-a-Highway sign was vandalized—as expected, given the group's ideology—it was the group's responsibility to fund a replacement sign if they so desired. 

After the Supreme Court decision, Missouri was able to keep a law barring groups from the program who had members convicted of violent criminal activity in the past 10 years, the Associated Press noted. Georgia cited similar reasoning in its denial of an Adopt-a-Highway application from the KKK in 2012, noting the group's history of civil disturbance and the likelihood that the recognition sign would cause disruptions in traffic, per CNN.

Renaming or dedicating adopted sections after civil rights figures is another tactic states can use to distance themselves from hate groups. A stretch of Missouri's Interstate 55 was renamed Rosa Parks Highway in 2000 after being adopted by the KKK. Missouri deployed the same tactic again in 2011, Reuters noted, renaming a stretch of U.S. Highway 160 that was adopted by members of the National Socialist Movement after Holocaust survivor Rabbi Earnest I. Jacob. 

Workers with the Missouri Department of Transportation unveiled a new sign honoring civil rights activist Rosa Parks on Nov. 2, 2000, on Highway 55 in south St. Louis County. The one-mile stretch of highway honoring Parks is the same road where the Ku Klux Klan posted signs last year for adopt-a-highway. Bill Greenblatt/Getty Images

Sadly, sometimes the bigotry comes from the state. South Dakota opted to remove all sponsor names from its Adopt-a-Highway signs after the Sioux Empire Gay and Lesbian Coalition filed a lawsuit in 2001 demanding their right to appear on a highway sign like any other group, the Associated Press reported. 

The state's governor at the time, Bill Janklow, cited the Supreme Court decision that prohibited Missouri from barring the KKK's participation in its Adopt-a-Highway program as the impetus for removing names from signs. If the state could no longer control who could participate in the program, it would simply remove sponsor call-outs from its signs to avoid any potential misconceptions that the state approved of the groups on its signs. Janklow told the Associated Press that he didn't have anything personal against gay people, but the timing of the decision and the fact that he called out pedophiles alongside white supremacists as two groups he did not want the state recognizing on signs are dog whistles too loud to ignore. 

Cleanups Are Everywhere Now

Even with its surprisingly long history of litigation, there's no denying that Adopt-a-Highway programs make a huge positive impact, both to states' budgets as well as to the cleanliness of roads and other public spaces. The idea of a public-led cleanup is pretty commonplace now, extending not just into other governmental agencies, but even fun events like the Gambler 500, where cheap-car-thrashing off-road nuts go into nature with a side quest to clean up trails along the way. 

There isn't much that Americans can nearly universally agree on, but it's safe to say the popularity of Adopt-a-Highway and the wide variety of groups involved shows that we at least have one common ground. Littering sucks! Don't do it. 

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