Friends of the road

You’ve seen them along the side of the road picking up discarded pop cans in the ditches, holding large blue plastic trash bags and wearing bright orange vests.

They are the volunteers in the Adopt-A-Highway program instituted by the Kansas Department of Transportation in 1989.

“We started the program because the residents of Kansas asked us to,” said Susan Barker, Adopt-A-Highway coordinator with the KDOT Topeka office.

“They saw the signs up in other states and said, ‘Why don’t we have this?’ It’s successful nationwide and even in Kansas because the people of the state want to do it.”

Adopt-A-Highway originated in Texas in 1985 and since then, 49 states have developed their own programs. Only Vermont lacks a program due to strict highway-billboard regulations.

“They wouldn’t put up the Adopt-A-Highway signs because they conflicted with their billboard law,” Barker said.

Similar to other states, the KDOT Adopt-A-Highway program is designed to help keep roads, such as those in Marion County, free of litter and reinforce a sense of community pride.

“It makes a very big impression, especially in a rural community,” Barker said. “The roads outside a community, whether it’s large or small, are usually always adopted-two, four or 10 miles out.”

The program relies on volunteers from non-profit groups and is open to organizations that do not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, color or sex, according to the KDOT Web site

In Marion County, the following 12 groups participate in the program: Alexanderwohl Youth Fellowship, Boys Scouts of America, Burns United Methodist Church, Centre FFA, Durham Lions Club, employees of St. Luke Hospital, Hillsboro American Legion, Hillsboro High School Technology Student Association, Hillsboro Lions Club, Marion/Florence FFA, Marion Kiwanis Club and the Abrahams family.

“We’re about the fourth one in the state that joined this,” said Tom Koslowsky, past president of the Sons of the Hillsboro American Legion.

“We use people from all three organizations-the Legion post, the auxiliary ladies and the Sons of the American Legion.”

The 12 Marion County groups have signed up with KDOT to pick up trash three times a year, usually spring, summer and fall. Committing to a two-year period, the groups cover a total of about 30 miles in the county.

Although large metropolitan areas such as Shawnee County and Sedgwick County have waiting lists for groups who want to sign up to pick up litter, Marion County does not have people waiting. In fact, KDOT welcomes inquiries from those wanting to help, according to Kathy Bernhardt, administrative specialist working out of the KDOT office in Marion.

“We have miles of road,” Bernhardt said. “Granted, they may be a long way from the cities, but we have miles to be adopted.”

Adopt-A-Highway application forms are available on the KDOT Web site. Under the terms and conditions of the application and program, the minimum age to participate is 11. And those between 11 and 18 must submit a signed consent form from their parents or guardians.

Among the other requirements listed on the Website are the following:

n The group shall conduct a safety meeting prior to each road-side pick-up.

n Participants between the ages of 11 and 18 must be accompanied by at least one person over the age of 21 per five people under the age of 18.

n Litter must be picked up by a group of at least three people.

n Pick-up is restricted to areas of the right-of-way outside the pavement and shoulder areas. At the discretion of KDOT, litter pick-up may be permitted in the median areas of divided highways.

n Filled trash bags must be placed at designated spots along the outside shoulder edge, and the bags will be removed by KDOT the next working day.

n The group has no authority to stop, direct traffic or do anything other than litter pick-up.

n No children or pets are allowed at the litter pick-up area or in vehicles parked by those picking up trash.

The participating groups agree to volunteer their time and energy to keep the highways clean. KDOT provides a 10-minute video on safety training, a supply of trash bags, orange vests for visibility and the signs along the highway listing the name of the group adopting that stretch of road.

Groups typically car pool to their area, park on one side of the highway, flip down their sign to indicate a litter crew is working, walk to the end of their area, cross over to the other side and work their way back to their vehicles.

Volunteers are encouraged to wear heavy boots, light-colored clothing in summer and year round they should wear long-sleeved shirts, pants and gloves.

“Even in the summer, we like them to wear light-weight cotton shirts,” Barker said. “It does get buggy, and it’s also the sun and the grass. You can cut yourself on the grass really easily.”

When there is an over abundance of highway trash, KDOT employees will pick it up.

“But it doesn’t happen very often,” Barker said. “The volunteers do offer a big service to KDOT and do most of the work.”

Working along the shoulder and in the grass beside a designated stretch of road, volunteers typically pick up pop cans and fast-food trash, Barker said. Another commonly found item is tire tread.

“The KDOT name for that is alligators,” Barker said.

KDOT employees will pick up larger debris when it’s on the road side and is a hazard to the traveling public, Barker said.

“We tell (volunteers) not to pick up anything hazardous, like dead animals, needles or guns. If they find a big deer, we’ve got to take care of it. And if they find a gun, they’re supposed to call the highway patrol immediately.”

Koslowsky said that his group has found unusual items in addition to the pop cans and fast-food wrappers and bags. Although the group has found small denominations of money over time, during one session, they found a $20 bill.

“I think we went out and had ice cream, or something like that with that money,” Koslowsky said. “We’ve found wedding pictures. In fact, we found pictures one time, recognized the people in the pictures, and gave them back to them.”

Throughout the year, about 25 to 30 people volunteer from the American Legion’s three groups, and organizers try to have about 12 to 15 members at one time do the work.

The group’s route is along U.S. Highway 56-starting at Adams on the eastern edge and moving 21/2 miles west along the highway.

One of the heaviest areas of debris in the Legion’s designated area is at the intersection of U.S. 56 and Kansas Highway 15, Koslowsky said.

“Ash Street, here at Alco, that’s a big intersection, too.”

The litter culprit is the consumer who eats in the car or truck and tosses trash out on the highway instead of in a trash can.

“Sonic and McDonald’s both, there’s lots of trash from them but it’s not just theirs,” Koslowsky said about two local fast-food restaurants in Hillsboro.

Explaining the litter phenomenon, Barker said, “There’s a certain radius from when you pick up your fast food and when you get rid of it. And it usually ends up on the highway.”

Barker and Bernhardt both said the highways closest to the cities are the areas predominantly littered with trash and the most frequently adopted.

“The spots that are not adopted are in between communities,” Barker said. “The rural areas and the amount of litter in those is going to be very minimal.”

Most litter pick-up occurs on the weekend, when people have time off from work.

“We’ve done it about any time of the week,” Koslowsky said about the local American Legion group. “But most of the time, it’s either Saturday or Sunday evening or afternoon. We’ve done it in the snow, ice and rain.”

Although tax dollars are designated for highway personnel to take care of the larger items discarded by inconsiderate motorists, Barker said the Adopt-A-Highway program saves tax dollars by using the volunteers instead of paying KDOT personnel.

“Whether you do maintenance on your home or maintenance on the road, there’s always a list of maintenance items that need done,” Barker said. “The maintenance guys never get to the bottom of the list, and litter is probably close to the end-unless it’s something bulky that’s going to be detrimental to the traveling public.”

Aside from saving tax dollars, the program was established to help the environment and give non-profit groups an opportunity to get involved.

“There’s been just tons and tons of trash over the years,” Koslowsky said. “If that had stayed there, some of it would still be there, especially the plastics and the aluminum that don’t break down. So it does help keep the area looking good.”

In the spring, when volunteers are out in the county ridding the roads of litter, take a moment to acknowledge them.

“There’s truckers honking at us and people always waving at us,” Koslowsky said. “It’s neat. The local people will recognize us, but it’s also people who have no idea who we are. I guess they are waving in appreciation.”

In Marion County, groups interested in joining the Adopt-A-Highway program can call the Marion office at 620-382-3717 or visit the Web site for more information.

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