Thursday, April 18, 2013

A little trash talk (read to the bottom)

When MoDOT needs highway trash pickup, who's it gonna call?

ST. LOUIS • When temperatures warm up, expect the Paranormal Investigators of St. Louis to go on the hunt along Interstate 55.
Members will be looking for trash, not ghosts, as one of the latest entrants to Missouri’s Adopt-A-Highway program. They will don bright vests and bag litter along the half-mile stretch of I-55 near Gasconade Street.
“It does help out the community somewhat, and it does help put our name out there,” said Rachel Davidson, 33, who has been investigating the paranormal in her spare time for about eight years. But she said that so far, “If anything, we might have gotten a couple more likes on our Facebook page.”
As many other states, Missouri enlists small battalions of volunteers to remove trash or mow highway medians. There are now 3,700 total adoptions covering 5,200 miles of highway. MoDOT figures the groups’ efforts save it $1.5 million a year. The pay? Besides the feeling of satisfaction that comes with doing a good deed, each group gets a blue-and-gold sign with its name emblazoned across it.
Typically, the tradeoff works for both sides, but it sometimes comes at an unexpected cost. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Missouri mounted losing legal battles to prevent the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan from participating and receiving a sign. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 said Missouri could not block groups from adopting highways.
The Klan is no longer on the list of Missouri highway adopters.
More recently, a group of Sept. 11 “truthers” adopted a section of Olive Boulevard just east of Lindbergh Boulevard. Its participants question the government’s version of the 9/11 terror attacks.
A review of Missouri’s Adopt-A-Highway program shows a collection of single-issue special interest groups that include those seeking legalization of marijuana and repeal of the Missouri law requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets.
Both the Democratic and Republican political parties have adopted highways, but so has the Constitution Party of Jefferson County. Atheists and right-to-life groups maintain their own highway segments.
“We did it just to give back to the community,” said Kenny “Ditch” Williams, president of the Freedom of the Road Riders Local 42. “We ride through all the time. It was dirty. So we adopted it. It don’t hurt. We got our Adopt-A-Highway signs. It lets them know we are out there. We care.”
Freedom of the Road Riders is a motorcycle-rights group that among other things, Williams said, is seeking to ease the state’s mandatory motorcycle helmet law. It has adopted a half mile of Route AT in Franklin County.
Illinois puts limits on its similar program, said Paris Ervin, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Transportation.
Ervin said in an email that some Illinois groups have been barred because the “group name was unacceptable. Web sites, dot coms, individual names, phone numbers and promotion of political groups or organizations are not allowed on signage,” Ervin explained.
All a Missouri group must do is sign a three-year agreement and commit to pick up litter at least four times a year, said Tom Blair, MoDOT’s assistant district engineer in St. Louis. They also get some safety training, vests and trash bags.
For some groups, that has proven too high a hurdle.
Many have the adoption revoked for failing to comply with requirements, or voluntarily rescind it. Among the groups whose participation has been revoked are the Kansas City Royals Baseball Club, the Scenic Rivers National Audubon Society, and Waste Management Inc., according to MoDOT records.
More and more, families have adopted highways and pitched signs dedicated to the memory of fallen loved ones.
Hobbyists and social groups have not shied from highway beautification.
The Chariots of the Dead Hearse Club adopted a section of Highway 43 in Jasper County. Not to be outdone, the Hellacious Haulers Hearse Club is doing a portion of U.S. Highway 63 in Howell County.
One group with an interest in the adventures of Sherlock Holmes patrols two segments of Interstate 70 in St. Charles County. So far, the signs have helped grab the attention of at least one future member.
“I’ve always been interested in litter control,” said Michael Bragg, 66, a former MoDOT safety officer and leader of the Harpooners of the Sea Unicorn — a local group named loosely after elements of a favorite Holmes story. “What gets me are all the beer bottles and beer cans.”
The group has been around since 1989 and meets once a month at the Mother in Law House Restaurant. Participants have picked up trash at various spots along Interstate 70. When a particular stretch opened up, Bragg grabbed it for a reason.
The segment runs in an area designated on MoDOT maps as between miles 220.86 and 221.36. Somewhere in there would fall 221B, if there were such a mile marker.
That’s 221B as in 221B Baker Street — the London street address of the group’s favorite fictional detective.1
Ken Leiser is the transportation writer at the Post-Dispatch. Read his Along for the Ride column online and every Sunday in the newspaper.


  1. Sherlockians making a difference. Nice article, John.

    1. Thanks.
      I'll try to take a picture of the sign and post it here.