Own the Road: A Brief History of the Adopt-a-Highway Program

In the 26 years since the Adopt-a-Highway program was launched, it has helped keep America’s highways clean, saved taxpayers money, sparked a handful of free-speech battles, and even been featured on an episode of Seinfeld. Here’s a brief history of the program.

The Birth of Adopt-a-Highway

The idea hit James Evans like an empty soda can, or maybe it was a discarded candy wrapper. Evans, an engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, was driving one day in 1984 when he saw litter blowing out of the back of a pickup truck. Littering was a growing problem in Texas at the time, and while Evans knew that his department didn’t have the resources to combat it, he saw a prime opportunity to promote volunteerism. One year later, Billy Black, the public information officer for the Tyler District of the Texas Department of Transportation, collaborated with Evans and organized the first Adopt-a-Highway program.

How the Program Works

The program varies slightly by state, but volunteers typically apply to adopt at least two miles of highway for two years, and are responsible for cleaning that stretch at least four times per year. In return, the adopter’s name is recognized on a sign along that stretch of highway. The Adopt-a-Highway program saves taxpayers millions of dollars in cleanup costs and allows state governments to allocate transportation funds to other projects. The number of state employees devoted to highway cleanup and beautification has plunged since the advent of the Adopt-a-Highway program. A number of states, including New Hampshire, have Sponsor-a-Highway programs, where volunteers make donations to pay for maintenance crews to clean a stretch of highway in exchange for recognition on a sign.

The First Adoption

The first Adopt-a-Highway sign was installed along Highway 69 in Tyler, Texas, on March 9, 1985. The Tyler Civitan Club was provided equipment and safety training and was responsible for a two-mile stretch of road as part of Tyler’s pilot program. In 1999, the Texas legislature honored that group by passing a resolution that established March 9 as International Adopt-a-Highway Day.

“Don’t Mess With Texas”

The popular slogan that adorns bumper stickers and T-shirts originated as part of a 1986 campaign to reduce litter along Texas roadways and is trademarked by the Texas Department of Transportation. The litter awareness campaign was launched in conjunction with the Adopt-a-Highway program and is credited with reducing litter on Texas highways by 72% within the first four years.

The Adoption Movement Spreads

The Adopt-a-Highway program was a huge success in Texas and other states soon took notice. The program, or a variation thereof, eventually spread to all 50 states, as well as Puerto Rico, and several countries, including Australia, Japan and Spain. The most common adopters are civic groups and local businesses, though individuals occasionally adopt. Celebrities, including Bette Midler and Robin Williams, helped raise the profile of the program by adopting their own stretches of highway. Today, a handful of for-profit companies manage the sponsoring of highways by large companies looking for positive publicity and what amounts to advertising space on a small billboard.

Adopt-a-Highway Gets the Seinfeld Treatment

In the 150th episode of Seinfeld, “The Pothole,” Kramer announces, “I am a proud parent of a one-mile stretch of the Arthur Berkhardt Expressway.” Kramer proceeds to convert the four-lane highway into a “two-lane comfort cruise” by blacking out two sets of lane lines, which results in massive congestion. Out of fear that he’ll lose his baby, Kramer attempts to remove the black paint, but spills paint thinner all over the highway. While driving along Kramer’s stretch of highway, Newman runs over a sewing machine and it catches on the front axle, producing sparks. Here's the final scene:

Court Rules KKK Can Adopt a Highway

In 2001, Missouri and 28 other states challenged a lower court’s ruling that it was unconstitutional to deny the Ku Klux Klan’s application to participate in the Adopt-a-Highway program, but the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal. "We think we secured an important right,” Robert Herman, an attorney who was part of the ACLU team defending the Klan said. “The government cannot punish people for holding unpopular political opinions.” Missouri’s state legislature responded by renaming the stretch of highway that the KKK adopted Rosa Parks Highway. "I think the governor appreciates the irony of the KKK picking up trash along the Rosa Parks Highway,” a spokesman for Gov. Mel Carnahan said."But regardless of how it's done, honoring Rosa Parks is a very noble thing to do.”

Other Adopt-a-Highway Controversies

In addition to the KKK, a number of other groups have become the subject of controversy after adopting stretches of highway over the years. Some groups, including Wiccans and nudists, create minor ripples. Others spark legal battles.

• National Socialist Movement: Missouri state officials responded to another controversial adoption in 2009 when it renamed a stretch of highway adopted by a neo-Nazi group after Abraham Joshua Heschel, a prominent Jewish civil rights advocate. “I think it’s childish,” Cynthia Keene, one of the group’s leaders, told the New York Times. “If they want to have Nazis out there stomping on a Jewish-named highway, that’s their choice.” A National Socialist Movement unit in Denver adopted a stretch of highway in 2010 as a PR and recruiting tool. “We're upstanding citizens, try to be good people, and try to portray ourselves that way," the unit’s leader told a local television station.

• The National Alliance: The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet accepted the National Alliance’s application for the Adopt-a-Highway program in 2007. When the cabinet learned of the group’s white supremacist views in 2009, it threatened to terminate the contract. Fearing legal action, the cabinet ultimately backed off.

• Minutemen: In 2009 the San Diego Minutemen, an anti-illegal immigration group, adopted a stretch of I-5 in California near the Mexico-United States border. Caltrans, which oversees California’s Adopt-a-Highway program, reassigned the group to a less busy stretch of road after local activists complained. The Minutemen filed suit and won a six-figure settlement and a formal apology from Caltrans, in addition to being able to keep their sign near the border.

• Southern Appalachian Lesbian and Gay Alliance: After the North Carolina Department of Transportation denied SALGA’s request to adopt a two-mile stretch of highway in 1989, the group filed suit. The two parties settled out of court and SALGA’s application was accepted, but North Carolina DOT officials urged the group to leave the words lesbian and gay off of its signs. SALGA chose to include the words and the signs were soon stolen. Under the terms of its Adopt-a-Highway program, the state agreed to pay for the original and one set of replacement signs.

• Men’s Crisis Center: In 2008, local women’s groups in Juneau, Alaska argued that an Adopt-a-Highway sign recognizing a social group called the Men’s Crisis Center was offensive and filed a petition with the office of Gov. Sarah Palin to have it removed. "The Men's Crisis Center is in our imagination," the center's founder, Ron DeLacy of Columbia, Calif., told the Juneau Empire. "There's no organized Men's Crisis Center. You go to the bar, you're at the Men's Crisis Center."

• Luv Boutique: In 2009, a small chain of adult entertainment stores adopted four stretches of highway in Connecticut.

What Else Can You Adopt?

The Adopt a Highway program has spawned numerous offshoots, including Adopt a Spot (for a particular area in a community, such as a park or a plaza), Adopt a Stream, Adopt a Road, and Adopt a Street. If you’re interested in adopting, visit your state’s DOT website to learn more.

10 Electrifying Facts About Michael Faraday

iStock
iStock

This world-changing genius was born into poverty on September 22, 1791. Fortunately for us, Michael Faraday refused to let his background stand in his way.

1. HE WAS LARGELY SELF-EDUCATED.

In Faraday's boyhood home, money was always tight. His father, James, was a sickly blacksmith who struggled to support a wife and four children in one of London's poorer outskirts. At age 13, young Faraday started helping the family make ends meet. Bookseller George Ribeau (sometimes spelled Riebau) took him on as an errand boy in 1804, with the teen's primary job being the delivery and recovery of loaned-out newspapers.

Shortly after Faraday's 14th birthday, Ribeau offered him a free apprenticeship. Over the next seven years, he mastered the trade of bookbinding. After hours, Faraday remained in Ribeau's store, hungrily reading many of the same volumes he'd bound together.

Like most lower-class boys, Faraday's formal schooling was very limited. Between those bookshelves, however, he taught himself a great deal—especially about chemistry, physics, and a mysterious force called "electricity."

2. A 300-PAGE NOTEBOOK LAUNCHED HIS SCIENTIFIC CAREER.


Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0 

Sir Humphry Davy (above) left a huge mark on science. In the year 1808 alone, the man discovered no less than five elements, including calcium and boron. An excellent public speaker, Davy's lectures at the Royal Institution consistently drew huge crowds. 

Twenty-year-old Faraday attended four of these presentations in 1812, having received tickets from a customer. As Davy spoke, Faraday jotted down detailed notes, which he then compiled and bound into a little book. Faraday sent his 300-page transcript to Davy. Duly impressed, the seasoned scientist eventually hired him as a lab assistant. Later in life, Davy was asked to name the greatest discovery he'd ever made. His answer: "Michael Faraday."

Tension would nevertheless erupt between mentor and protégé. As Faraday's accomplishments began to eclipse his own, Davy accused the younger man of plagiarizing another scientist's work (this rumor was swiftly discredited) and tried to block his admission to the Royal Society.

3. IF IT WEREN'T FOR FARADAY, WE MIGHT NOT HAVE ELECTRIC POWER.

On September 3, 1821, Faraday built a device that ushered technology into the modern era. One year earlier, Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted had demonstrated that when an electric current flows through a wire, a magnetic field is created around it. Faraday capitalized on this revelation. Inside the Royal Society basement, he began what was arguably his most groundbreaking experiment by placing a magnet in the bottom of a mercury-filled glass container. Dangling overhead was a wire, which Faraday connected to a battery. Once an electric current was conducted through the wire, it began rotating around the magnet.

Faraday had just built the world's first electric motor. How could he possibly top himself? By building the world's first electric generator. His first experiment was comprised of a simple ring of wires and cotton through which he passed a magnet. By doing so, he found that a current was generated. To this day, most electricity is made using the same principles.

4. FARADAY INVENTED THE RUBBER BALLOON.


iStock

By today's standards, his early models would look shabby. Made via pressing two sheets of rubber together, Faraday's balloons were used to contain hydrogen during his experiments. Faraday created his first in 1824 and was quick to praise the bag's “considerable ascending power.” Toy manufacturers started distributing these the following year.

5. HE'S ALSO THE GRANDFATHER OF MODERN REFRIGERATORS.

In 1823, Faraday sealed a sample of chlorine hydrate inside a V-shaped tube. As he heated one end and cooled the other simultaneously, the scientist noticed that a peculiar yellow liquid was starting to form. Curious, he broke open the tube. Without warning, a sudden, violent explosion sent glass shards flying everywhere. Mercifully uninjured, he smelled a strong scent of chlorine in the air.

It didn't take him very long to figure out what had happened. Inside the tube, pressure was building, which liquefied the gas. Upon puncturing the glass, he'd released this pressure and, afterwards, the liquid reverted into its gaseous state. This sudden evaporation came with an interesting side-effect: it cooled down the surrounding air. Quite unintentionally, Faraday thus set the stage for the very first ice-making machines and refrigeration units.

6. HE BECAME AN ANTI-POLLUTION CRUSADER.

Britain's industrialization came at a malodorous price. As London grew more crowded during the mid-1800s, garbage and fecal matter were dumped into the River Thames with increasing regularity. Naturally, the area didn't smell like a rose. In 1855, Faraday penned an oft-reproduced open letter about the problem, imploring the authorities to take action. “If we neglect this subject,” he wrote, “we cannot expect to do so with impunity; nor ought we be surprised if, ere many years are over, a hot season give us sad proof for the folly of our carelessness.”

Just as Faraday predicted, a broiling summer forced Londoners of all stripes to hold their noses. Dubbed “the Great Stink,” the warmer months of 1858 sent the Thames' rancid odor wafting all over the city. Parliament hastily responded with a comprehensive sewage reform bill. Gradually, the putrid stench began to dissipate.

7. HE STARTED THE ROYAL SOCIETY'S CHRISTMAS LECTURE TRADITION.


Alexander Blaikley, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Faraday understood the importance of making science accessible to the public. In 1825, while employed by the Royal Society, he spearheaded an annual series that's still going strong today. That holiday season, engineer John Millington delivered a set of layman-friendly lectures on “natural philosophy.” Every year thereafter (excluding 1939–1942 because of WWII), a prominent scientist has been invited to follow in his footsteps. Well-known Christmas lecturers include David Attenborough (1973), Carl Sagan (1977), and Richard Dawkins (1991). Faraday himself was the presenter on no less than 19 occasions.

8. BRILLIANT AS FARADAY WAS, HE STRUGGLED WITH MATH.

Towards the end of his life, Faraday's lack of formal education finally caught up with him. An underprivileged childhood had rendered him mathematically illiterate, a severe handicap for a professional scientist. In 1846, he hypothesized that light itself is an electromagnetic phenomenon, but because Faraday couldn't support the notion with mathematics, it wasn't taken seriously. Salvation for him came in the form of a young physicist named James Clerk Maxwell. Familial wealth had enabled Maxwell to pursue math and—in 1864—he released equations [PDF] that helped prove Faraday's hunch.

9. AS TIME WORE ON, HE STRUGGLED WITH MEMORY LOSS.

Michael Faraday
iStock

At the age of 48, Faraday's once-sharp memory started faltering. Stricken by an illness that rendered him unable to work for three years, he wrestled with vertigo, unsteadiness, and other symptoms. Following this "extended vacation" [PDF], he returned to the Royal Society, where he experimented away until his early 70s.

However, Faraday was still prone to inexplicable spurts of sudden giddiness, depression, and extreme forgetfulness. “[My] bad memory,” he wrote, “both loses recent things and sometimes suggests old ones as new.” Nobody knows what caused this affliction, though some blame it on overexposure to mercury.

10. EINSTEIN KEPT A PORTRAIT OF FARADAY IN HIS BERLIN HOME.

Fittingly, the father of modern physics regarded Faraday as a personal hero. Once, upon receiving a book about him, Einstein remarked, “This man loved mysterious Nature as a lover loves his distant beloved.”

London's Trafalgar Square Gets a Poetry-Writing Red Lion

Tolga Akmen, AFP/Getty Images
Tolga Akmen, AFP/Getty Images

London’s historic Trafalgar Square just got a fifth lion, the BBC reports. The fluorescent red, AI-powered lion takes visitor-submitted words and turns them into two-line poems, which are displayed on a screen inside its mouth. The history-inspired installation is part of the ongoing festivities for the London Design Festival, which ends Sunday.

The idea comes from set designer Es Devlin, who is participating in a yearlong collaboration with Google Arts & Culture. She was inspired by another designer who remarked that Sir Edwin Landseer, who sculptured the other lions in the square in the late 19th century, "never wanted [them] to look so passive.” Landseer apparently wanted the lions to assume a more lively stance, “but Queen Victoria found it too shocking,” Devlin says.

The story of how Trafalgar Square’s lions came to be is an odd piece of history. For one, the process was painfully slow. Landseer spent four years just working up a sketch and spent hours studying the habits of lions at the London Zoo. He even waited two years for one of the zoo’s lions to die, then carted it back to his studio and kept it there until it started to decay. He was forced to throw out the animal—and his reference material—before he finished. “Which is why, if you look closely, you can see that the lions in Trafalgar Square actually have the paws of cats, rather than lions,” The Telegraph notes.

[h/t BBC]

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