116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The Iowa Department of Transportation is responsible for the upkeep of highways in the state. That includes maintenance and construction work, as well as litter pickup. But picking up trash can take a lot of time, so the Iowa DOT partners with community members to keep roadways clean through the Adopt-a-Highway program.
“We don’t like the roads to be polluted, and we don’t want to pick trash up. We would rather be working on the roads and doing roadway work,” John Hart, the Maintenance Bureau Director for the Iowa DOT, said.
Iowa DOT employees clocked 303,000 hours picking up litter in FY 2022, according to Hart. Hart estimates that volunteers who helped pick up trash through the state’s Adopt-a-Highway program saved the DOT between 55,000 and 60,000 additional hours of litter pickup.
“People don’t realize how much stuff gets thrown out of vehicles and littered. It’s very unfortunate,” Hart said.
The number of groups participating in Adopt-a-Highway across the state stays fairly consistent from year to year, usually between 1,100 and 1,200, Hart said. But the amount of litter picked up in FY 2022 increased dramatically from the two years prior.
When a group goes out to pick up litter, the DOT provides them with caution vests and trash bags, and the group can leave those bags on the side of the road to be collected by DOT employees. In FY 2019, the DOT picked up 3,500 trash bags from Adopt-a-Highway. In 2020 and 2021, that number dropped to 1,050 and 1,619 respectively, but in 2022 it jumped to 5,800.
There was a period of time during FY 2020 and FY 2021 when the Adopt-a-Highway program was paused because of COVID-19, which is why fewer bags were picked up those years than in 2019. Hart said he believes the big increase in 2022 is a result of that pause, as there was likely more litter that had been left along the highways and not picked up, resulting in a higher bag count.
The DOT asks that adopting groups go out to pick up litter at least twice per year. Most groups go out once in the spring, and once in the fall.
Matt Vajgrt, with the Knights of Columbus Council 15921, said planning for an outing in fall can get tricky, because in order to ensure people show up he has to work around football schedules. In general, the group is happy to go out and serve their community.
“One of the founding principles of the Knights of Columbus is charity. So, the Knights of Columbus councils in general are always looking for opportunities to practice charity in any number of forms. Of course, one of those forms is stewardship of the planet and trying to help take care of the environment,” Vajgrt said.
The local Knights of Columbus council adopts a portion of Highway 100 between I-380 and Marion Boulevard. They’ve been taking care of that section of the highway since 2014.
“We also do get a little bit of an added benefit because the DOT puts the signage at the start and end of our segment of highway, so we do get a little bit of publicity out of it. How many people actually pay attention to those signs, I don’t know,” Vajgrt said.
Ashely Dunn, with the Combat Vets Motorcycle Association Chapter 39-2, said their group also enjoys the publicity they get while picking up litter on the section of I-380 that the chapter adopts, but the main reason they do it is to benefit the community.
“It’s keeping the roads clean. It’s putting us out in the community, getting exposure so people know that we’re here,” Dunn said.
Adoptions last for two years. At the end of that time, an adopting group will receive a renewal request from the DOT, and many groups will continue renewing their adoptions for several years, according to Amanda Veren, Rest Area Coordinator for the Iowa DOT.
“It’s their responsibility to go and clean it up. We supply the garbage bags and the vests for them to wear and then they collect all the garbage. There’s no fees to do any of this. It’s basically just a way to help keep the areas picked up,” Veren said.
If a group hasn’t been keeping up with the litter pickup, they’ll receive a notification from the DOT, and they may lose their adoption.
The statewide Adopt-a-Highway program covers all the Iowa highways in the state, but groups can also sign up to help with litter pickup on smaller roadways, usually through their own county.
In Linn County, groups or individuals can sign up to for the Adopt-a-Roadside program, which is similar to the statewide program in that in involves litter pickup on county roads. Community members can also go one step further and sign up for an enhancement project, where community members are in charge of removing vegetation along the sides of roads, and replacing it with native seed provided by the county.
“So, if they want prairie in their ditch, they can get that seed from us, but then they have to plant it, so they’re liable for it,” Megan Huck, the Linn County Roadside Vegetation Specialist said.
— Any adult or group that includes adults can adopt a highway, except political or partisan groups.
— 2,800 miles of highway shoulders are currently being maintained through the Adopt-a-Highway program.
— Between 1,100 and 1,200 groups or individuals are in charge of cleaning up Iowa highways at any given time.
— Each adopter is required to take charge of at least two miles of highway, but some groups choose to take larger portions.
— Adopting groups are required to go out and pick up litter at least twice a year.
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