Own the Road: A Brief History of the Adopt-a-Highway Program
By Scott Allen
In the decades since the Adopt-a-Highway program was launched in 1985, it has helped keep America’s highways clean, saved taxpayers money, sparked a handful of free-speech battles, and even been featured on an episode of Seinfeld. Here’s a brief history of the program.
The Birth of Adopt-a-Highway
The idea hit James Evans like an empty soda can, or maybe it was a discarded candy wrapper. Evans, an engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, was driving one day in 1984 when he saw litter blowing out of the back of a pickup truck. Littering was a growing problem in Texas at the time, and while Evans knew that his department didn’t have the resources to combat it, he saw a prime opportunity to promote volunteerism. One year later, Billy Black, the public information officer for the Tyler District of the Texas Department of Transportation, collaborated with Evans and organized the first Adopt-a-Highway program.
How the Program Works
The program varies slightly by state, but volunteers typically apply to adopt at least two miles of highway for two years, and are responsible for cleaning that stretch at least four times per year. In return, the adopter’s name is recognized on a sign along that stretch of highway. The Adopt-a-Highway program saves taxpayers millions of dollars in cleanup costs and allows state governments to allocate transportation funds to other projects. The number of state employees devoted to highway cleanup and beautification has plunged since the advent of the Adopt-a-Highway program. A number of states, including New Hampshire, have Sponsor-a-Highway programs, where volunteers make donations to pay for maintenance crews to clean a stretch of highway in exchange for recognition on a sign.
The First Adoption
The first Adopt-a-Highway sign was installed along Highway 69 in Tyler, Texas, on March 9, 1985. The Tyler Civitan Club was provided equipment and safety training and was responsible for a two-mile stretch of road as part of Tyler’s pilot program. In 1999, the Texas legislature honored that group by passing a resolution that established March 9 as International Adopt-a-Highway Day.
“Don’t Mess With Texas”
The popular slogan that adorns bumper stickers and T-shirts originated as part of a 1986 campaign to reduce litter along Texas roadways and is trademarked by the Texas Department of Transportation. The litter awareness campaign was launched in conjunction with the Adopt-a-Highway program and is credited with reducing litter on Texas highways by 72% within the first four years.
The Adoption Movement Spreads
The Adopt-a-Highway program was a huge success in Texas and other states soon took notice. The program, or a variation thereof, eventually spread to all 50 states, as well as Puerto Rico, and several countries, including Australia, Japan and Spain. The most common adopters are civic groups and local businesses, though individuals occasionally adopt. Celebrities, including Bette Midler and Robin Williams, helped raise the profile of the program by adopting their own stretches of highway. Today, a handful of for-profit companies manage the sponsoring of highways by large companies looking for positive publicity and what amounts to advertising space on a small billboard.
Adopt-a-Highway Gets the Seinfeld Treatment
In the 150th episode of Seinfeld, “The Pothole,” Kramer announces, “I am a proud parent of a one-mile stretch of the Arthur Berkhardt Expressway.” Kramer proceeds to convert the four-lane highway into a “two-lane comfort cruise” by blacking out two sets of lane lines, which results in massive congestion. Out of fear that he’ll lose his baby, Kramer attempts to remove the black paint, but spills paint thinner all over the highway. While driving along Kramer’s stretch of highway, Newman runs over a sewing machine and it catches on the front axle, producing sparks. Here's the final scene:
Court Rules KKK Can Adopt a Highway
In 2001, Missouri and 28 other states challenged a lower court’s ruling that it was unconstitutional to deny the Ku Klux Klan’s application to participate in the Adopt-a-Highway program, but the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal. "We think we secured an important right,” Robert Herman, an attorney who was part of the ACLU team defending the Klan said. “The government cannot punish people for holding unpopular political opinions.” Missouri’s state legislature responded by renaming the stretch of highway that the KKK adopted Rosa Parks Highway. "I think the governor appreciates the irony of the KKK picking up trash along the Rosa Parks Highway,” a spokesman for Gov. Mel Carnahan said."But regardless of how it's done, honoring Rosa Parks is a very noble thing to do.”
Other Adopt-a-Highway Controversies
In addition to the KKK, a number of other groups have become the subject of controversy after adopting stretches of highway over the years. Some groups, including Wiccans and nudists, create minor ripples. Others spark legal battles.
• National Socialist Movement: Missouri state officials responded to another controversial adoption in 2009 when it renamed a stretch of highway adopted by a neo-Nazi group after Abraham Joshua Heschel, a prominent Jewish civil rights advocate. “I think it’s childish,” Cynthia Keene, one of the group’s leaders, told the New York Times. “If they want to have Nazis out there stomping on a Jewish-named highway, that’s their choice.” A National Socialist Movement unit in Denver adopted a stretch of highway in 2010 as a PR and recruiting tool. “We're upstanding citizens, try to be good people, and try to portray ourselves that way," the unit’s leader told a local television station.
• The National Alliance: The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet accepted the National Alliance’s application for the Adopt-a-Highway program in 2007. When the cabinet learned of the group’s white supremacist views in 2009, it threatened to terminate the contract. Fearing legal action, the cabinet ultimately backed off.
• Minutemen: In 2009 the San Diego Minutemen, an anti-illegal immigration group, adopted a stretch of I-5 in California near the Mexico-United States border. Caltrans, which oversees California’s Adopt-a-Highway program, reassigned the group to a less busy stretch of road after local activists complained. The Minutemen filed suit and won a six-figure settlement and a formal apology from Caltrans, in addition to being able to keep their sign near the border.
• Southern Appalachian Lesbian and Gay Alliance: After the North Carolina Department of Transportation denied SALGA’s request to adopt a two-mile stretch of highway in 1989, the group filed suit. The two parties settled out of court and SALGA’s application was accepted, but North Carolina DOT officials urged the group to leave the words lesbian and gay off of its signs. SALGA chose to include the words and the signs were soon stolen. Under the terms of its Adopt-a-Highway program, the state agreed to pay for the original and one set of replacement signs.
• Men’s Crisis Center: In 2008, local women’s groups in Juneau, Alaska argued that an Adopt-a-Highway sign recognizing a social group called the Men’s Crisis Center was offensive and filed a petition with the office of Gov. Sarah Palin to have it removed. "The Men's Crisis Center is in our imagination," the center's founder, Ron DeLacy of Columbia, Calif., told the Juneau Empire. "There's no organized Men's Crisis Center. You go to the bar, you're at the Men's Crisis Center."
• Luv Boutique: In 2009, a small chain of adult entertainment stores adopted four stretches of highway in Connecticut.
What Else Can You Adopt?
The Adopt-a-Highway program has spawned numerous offshoots, including Adopt a Spot (for a particular area in a community, such as a park or a plaza), Adopt a Stream, Adopt a Road, and Adopt a Street. If you’re interested in adopting, visit your state’s DOT website to learn more.