Get in Line to Adopt That Freeway : City Smart / How to thrive in the urban environment of Southern California


Remember the old scam of selling some sucker the Brooklyn Bridge? Well, Caltrans wants to sell you a piece of a California highway or freeway wall, trash bags or roadside plants.

And they’re on the level.

Six years ago, Caltrans introduced “Adopt a Highway,” the type of public-private partnership that cash-strapped government agencies love to tout.

In exchange for clearing litter from a two-mile stretch of highway for two years, Caltrans erects a sign on that part of the highway crediting the “adoptive parents.”


Other programs have followed, saving Caltrans an estimated $22 million in labor costs each year. Caltrans says the adoption programs have cost about $7.8 million since they began in 1989.

The hope is that adopters will have pride in “ownership”: If their area is not maintained, the adoptive group leaves itself open to scorn from the millions of people who pass the sign bearing the group’s name.

“You’re adopting the responsibility,” said Joel Fonseca, who coordinates the program for Los Angeles and Ventura counties.



Groups dedicated to public service, like church groups and Scouts, were among the first to sign up. Then came the businesses--most of which pay others to clean their portion and supply Caltrans with their firm’s logo to attach to the 5-by-7-foot recognition sign.

(Entertainer Bette Midler was among those who paid an outside contractor to clear litter from her stretch of the Ventura Freeway for four years. She dropped out of the program in May after moving to New York, Fonseca said.)

Geary’s Beverly Hills, a tableware store, pays slightly less than $1,000 a month for a private contractor to maintain its high-profile stretch of the San Diego Freeway between Mulholland Drive and the Ventura Freeway.

“It was a way of putting back into the community,” said Geary’s President Bruce Meyer, who has been involved with the program for more than four years. “It’s also a way of getting our name in front of a lot of people in a very positive way.”

It’s that kind of thinking, however, that bothers some conservationists.

“Picking up litter or cleaning the walls is a valid and important goal,” said Frank Vespe, of the national beautification group Scenic America. “On the other hand, you don’t want to replace the blight of litter with the blight of too many signs.”

There have been more than 4,000 participants statewide since the program began, almost 500 in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. About 40% of local participants have been businesses, Fonseca said.

Locally, about 600 miles of highway have been snapped up--mostly along the well-traveled metropolitan stretches that now have waiting lists of prospective adopters. Ditto for most urban freeway walls, Fonseca said.


That still leaves unclaimed almost 600 highway miles in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, especially along less-traveled, more rural routes.


Caltrans unveiled “Adopt a Wall,” a graffiti removal program, in 1991 as an encore to the growing highway program.

About 200 individuals, organizations and businesses have volunteered to monitor their walls for tagging and remove any graffiti within five days.

“Adopt a Bag,” in which businesses supply Caltrans with orange trash bags emblazoned with their names, came this year.

So far, no takers, much to Fonseca’s amazement.

“The exposure is incredible,” Fonseca said. “You see those orange bags everywhere. All the people who pass by will see them piled up [on the roadsides].”

On that note comes “Living Logo,” or what might be called “Adopt a Row of Plants.”


In exchange for keeping an area clean, businesses can spell out their name or sketch their logo in living plants on a roadside tract as big as 75 by 40 feet.

So far, no takers.

But look for more “adopt a something” programs to come soon to a freeway near you.

Can adopting the Brooklyn Bridge be far off?