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Freeway Cleanup Program Generates Jam of Sponsors : Road litter: Adopting a highway means first-rate billboard advertising on the cheap, businesses find. There are waiting lists for some heavily traveled routes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Participation in the state’s Adopt-a-Highway program is growing faster than a field of dandelions. Since July, 1990, the number of businesses, service organizations and individuals volunteering to pick up litter along freeways and highways has increased tenfold.

But in typical California fashion, those with the wherewithal are hiring the asphalt equivalent of maids to do the cleaning for them--while taking credit for the work by means of large roadside signs.

“I try and tell people it’s not a means of advertising but it seems to be going in that direction,” says Jim Noel, San Diego-region program coordinator for the state Department of Transportation. “It was meant to get people more interested and involved in trying to get things clean.”

In all, 2,272 organizations, businesses and individuals, including some celebrities, participate in the program--compared to a mere 200 only 18 months ago, Caltrans says. For some heavily traveled roadways there are now waiting lists.

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Some observers, however, question whether Caltrans has actually sold the state short by not charging corporations for what is, in essence, free billboard space seen on urban freeways by more than 200,000 motorists daily.

“It started out as a good-deed activity,” said Mehdi Morshed, staff director of the state Senate’s Transportation Committee, which is planning a public hearing on the 3-year-old program next month. “Then private companies got involved. . . . (They realized) this is a great value, a cheap buy for advertising.”

Morshed suggested the participants should pay for what they get: “If a company wants its name on the highway, it ought to be by competitive bid.”

At this point, the 5-by-9-foot recognition signs are proliferating to the extent that aesthetic concerns have been raised in some corners of the state.

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After complaints from Laguna Beach officials about the jarring nature of the big blue markers along scenic roadways, Caltrans officials recently agreed to erect signs half the usual size along Pacific Coast Highway and Laguna Canyon Road.

“The main objective is to make the highway cleaner,” said Laguna Beach Councilman Neil G. Fitzpatrick. “But the large billboards had more negative impact than the litter.”

Joel Fonseca, Caltrans’ Los Angeles-region coordinator, said more than 900 miles of Los Angeles-area roadway shoulders are now cleaned under the program--the busiest ones every two weeks and more rural ones four times a year. Fewer than 200 miles considered safe--mainly on rural highways--are still available.

The program covers mostly freeways, but many state highways deemed safe are eligible--including such Los Angeles streets as Highland Avenue in Hollywood.

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Statewide, 43% of sponsors are businesses. A majority of the others are service organizations. A few freeway stretches are sponsored by families or individuals, including actress and singer Bette Midler.

Midler chose a segment of the Ventura Freeway because she often saw litter on it while being chauffeured between her Beverly Hills home and her office at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank.

But to the disappointment of stargazers, the Divine Miss M does not do freeways herself. She, like an increasing number of sponsors, employs a private contractor to clean the stretch between the Hollywood Freeway and Coldwater Canyon off-ramp that bears her name.

Sponsors adopt a two-mile stretch on a first-come, first-served basis. Although the sponsors cannot be directly political in nature, there are few other strictures. Participants range from animal rights activists in Ventura County to nudist colonies in San Bernardino County, and from Moose lodges to McDonald’s franchises across the state.

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It is far different from when the program began in 1989. Most sponsors were college fraternities, civic clubs and religious groups and most of them did their own pickups as a public service project.

The Islamic Center of Northridge joined the program because “we’d like to associate something positive with Islam and Moslems,” said center director Ahmed Elgabalawy.

Universal Studios and the Los Angeles Times Valley Edition, which clean up stretches of the Ventura Freeway in the San Fernando Valley, are among the sponsors that have hired contractors to pick up litter.

Caltrans officials say contractors are generally employed to clean freeway segments considered too hazardous for volunteer groups to undertake. But the officials also concede that they do not directly monitor the working conditions or safety training of the hired crews.

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“We kind of are making the assumption that although it may be the people who are running the companies that actually know the ins and outs of the business, that they are training their people,” said Jay Gorajia, Caltrans’ Orange County region Adopt-a-Highway coordinator. “We can’t approach every employee of a company.”

Teryl McEfee, whose Orange County public relations firm operates one of the largest contractors, Litter Removal Service of America, said her employees are thoroughly trained under guidelines provided by Caltrans.

In recent months, Morshed said, Senate Transportation Committee members, including its chairman, Sen. Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco), have expressed concern about the relationship between Caltrans and the private contractors.

For some time, Morshed said, businesses and organizations asking Caltrans about the program were given brochures that were prepared by--and included the name of--the private Adopt-A-Highway Maintenance Corp.

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“People who call may think this is another government person they are dealing with,” Morshed said. “This is somewhat confusing to the public.”

Committee members are also concerned, he said, about spotty Caltrans follow-through to see if the promised litter cleanup is getting done.

“Caltrans doesn’t know when groups pick up the litter,” Morshed said. In addition, he said, the state is being exposed to multimillion-dollar lawsuits by allowing private contractors to put employees on state highways.

An Orange County sponsor, Peter Shikli of San Clemente Computers, says he is not all that worried about the issue of worker safety.

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“You get someone sensible,” he said. "(Then) it’s all in the wrists.”

When Shikli adopted a portion of the San Diego Freeway near his office last February, he “was approached by these outfits that wanted to do it for $500 a (monthly pickup)--but I found that was way out of line.” So the first couple of months, he said, he cleaned his segment himself.

Then he found a man willing to do the work for $40 a load and hired him after increasing his firm’s workers’ compensation payments and “springing for a $15 litter grabber.”

The only negative response the software development specialist said he has received for his sign “is from my competitors who notice it and get (ticked) off when they find out how (inexpensive) it is to maintain and find out there’s no space left for them.”

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Proponents of the litter cleanup program rave that it is a bang-up success in promoting highway cleanliness and the spirit of volunteerism.

“I suppose anybody can criticize anything,” said San Diego Municipal Judge Larry Stirling, who introduced the bill creating the program while serving as a legislator. “But here we have a win-win-win program.

“The purpose was simply to clean up the freeways,” Stirling said. “This provides an incredibly positive public image for corporate sponsors. . . . (So) if they clean up the freeway, everybody wins.”

Cleaning Up

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A sampling of the Southern California service organizations and businesses participating in the state Adopt-A-Highway anti-litter program:

Name of Organization Highway Who does the work Concerned People for Animals 1 Volunteers Moose Lodge of Downey 19 Volunteers Western Sunbathing Assn. 15 Volunteers Santa Ana Isuzu 405 & 91 Private contractor Lambda Chi Alpha (at USC) 2 Volunteers Goldstein’s Bakery 210 Private contractor Antelope Valley Literacy Council 48 Volunteers Universal Studios 101 Private contractor

SOURCE: Caltrans


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