Want a Client? Adopt a Highway

Along the nation's highways there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of Adopt-A-Highway signs. They acknowledge individuals, businesses and organizations that help beautify the highways. But guess what? The people and groups advertised on the signs are not always the ones who do the work.

They hire contractors, and some of those are landscape companies. This has the potential to be a lucrative add-on business for landscapers, or an opportunity to start a new sideline.


Forty-nine states have Adopt-A-Highway programs. California's is one of the most extensive. In that state, participants can remove litter on a 2-mile stretch of freeway, remove graffiti from one or more highway structures, plant seedling trees or shrubs or control weeds on 5 acres of land, or plant wildflowers on 3 acres. In turn, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) puts up a sign with their name on their section of the highway acknowledging their work.

“Any business, organization or individual is welcome to join the program,” says Alfonso Sanchez, Adopt-A-Highway coordinator for Los Angeles and Ventura counties (District 7). “The only groups we don't allow are people who advocate hate and organizations that promote alcohol or tobacco.” According to the Caltrans Web site, there are more than 4,000 participants in the program in California.

Participants, often private businesses, adopt a highway both as a public service and for the advertising. One-quarter of them hire contractors. Contractors may do it partly for public service, but there is also money in it.

Not only does highway cleanup seem a natural add-on for a landscape company, it can also work the other way around. One of California's biggest Adopt-A-Highway contractors started with cleanup, and later added a landscape division because of the contacts it made.

“We are a landscape company,” says Tony Decker, whose family owns Adopt-The-Highway Company as well as the parent company, Landscape Maintenance of America. The company, operating out of Gavilan Hills and Loomis, in California, was a boon to the family's six sons — all of whom work for either the adoption company or the landscape company.

The highway cleanup portion of the company has up to 35 employees at any given time. “We clean up litter all over the state,” Decker says, so crews either work out of the two offices or just commute to job sites from home. Each crew is made up of two to five people, depending on how much litter each highway accumulates and how long a stretch of highway is contracted.

Each crew, led by a crew chief, has a company pickup or van. But that isn't for litter pick-up. Crews place the litter in bags, and the state does the rest.

“The bags are set along the highway,” Decker says, and Caltrans picks them up. But Adopt-The-Highway Company works in three states, and in Arizona the sponsor pays extra for the contractor to pick up the trash bags.

What is surprising is how lucrative highway cleanup can be. Decker says it varies quite a bit, because each sponsor contract is negotiated separately, and each highway has varying amounts of litter.

“Some jobs are done quarterly, some monthly,” he notes, and contracts are based on the amount of litter in a 2-mile stretch of highway. His company averages about $250 per month for an average 2-mile contract, but that can go up to $750 per month if conditions dictate. When you start adding up the number of miles of highway in the nation, there's a lot of money to be made.

“Volunteer groups do a lot of the work still. For them it's community service, and yet they get the marketing benefits of the highway sign,” Decker points out. He calls each Adopt-A-Highway sign a “mini-billboard” that is an effective advertisement.


Part of Decker's company's job is to design and install custom highway signs. They also do all the Caltrans paperwork, including obtaining the Adopt-A-Highway Encroachment Permit required for him to represent a client on the shoulder of the highway, and provide liability insurance for the workers as required by the states. All the sponsor has to do is pay for the service.

Decker notes that he contracts with companies ranging from huge corporations to mom-and-pop businesses. Automobile dealerships and restaurants are big highway sponsors, and one of his biggest contracts is with a multiple Burger King franchisee.

“We market it,” Decker says. He has an active sales campaign and does a lot of cold calling of businesses trying to sell them stretches of highway. His company also does landscape maintenance, vegetation control, tree plantings and wildflower planting — some of which can also be purchased under Adopt-A-Highway programs. Check out the company's Web site, www.adoptahwy.com, to see how it operates.

Decker says it just doesn't make any sense to those companies to have their employees risking their lives along the highways just for a promotional tool. Safety is a big concern for Adopt-A-Highway. The company hasn't had anyone killed, but then, it provides safety training to employees to avoid mishaps. Cleanup employees work against the traffic and don't work in large groups.

Decker says these are considered good jobs. He has had some employees for 10 years; some people just like the independence of working on their own in remote areas, though his company also contracts stretches of the busiest freeways in Los Angeles and San Francisco.


More importantly to the company, the highway cleanup contracts have led to vegetation maintenance jobs for the landscape division along the same stretches of highways. The landscape company has expanded and now also performs commercial and industrial construction.

Caltrans offers highway sections on a first-come, first-served basis. Slots in Los Angeles and Ventura counties are 80 to 90 percent filled, says Sanchez, and even rural areas are becoming filled. There's a waiting list for the most popular sections of the freeways, where up to 250,000 cars can pass daily. These include the 405, 101 and parts of the 10 in Los Angeles.

Any participant can hire a contractor — and sometimes they have to. Sites with steep slopes, high traffic volume or poor visibility, or where litter has to be removed more than 12 times a year are usually done by contractors. And usually only contractors are allowed to use motorized equipment on the state's right-of-way.

Contractors can be hired for any type of adoption, and to do all, or only some, of the work. To qualify, they have to meet the Adopt-A-Highway program's insurance and licensing requirements.

“You need $3 million in liability insurance,” says Sanchez. The encroachment permit, which is good for five years and can be renewed, is free. A contractor doesn't have to be bonded. Caltrans will supply and install the Adopt-A-Highway signs, or the contractor can do it. The state supplies, collects and disposes of the litterbags, and provides a safety orientation for group leaders.


California's program began in 1989. Since then, according to the Caltrans Web site, more than 15,000 shoulder-miles have been adopted. Participants have collected litter from more than 4,000 locations (nearly 250,000 bags of trash every year). They have cleaned graffiti from more than 300 freeway walls and structures, and planted trees, shrubs and wildflowers at 375 different sites. They also maintain the historic mission bells along El Camino Real.

According to the Caltrans Web site, the program saves California taxpayers an estimated $15 million per year. And it's growing. “Vegetation control is coming on big,” says Sanchez. “We don't have the resources to keep the weeds pulled. The program is so successful, it is expanding in Los Angeles and Ventura counties to on- and off-ramps and park-and-ride lots as well.”

For more information on the Adopt-A-Highway Program refer to “Caltrans Adopt-A-Highway Program Guidelines and Coordinators Handbook” or visit the Adopt-A-Highway Web site at http://adopt-a-highway.dot.ca.gov/. Other states have their own Web sites as well.

Don Dale and Janet Aird are freelance writers who reside in Altadena, Calif.

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