State highways across the South Sound could use a good spring cleaning.
From Interstate 5 through Pierce and Thurston counties to state Route 16 between Tacoma and Gig Harbor, roadside shoulders are strewn with litter and garbage.
“I-5 is the ugliest, most unkempt major roadway in this country,” Parkland resident Ed Cox told The News Tribune recently. “Is no one concerned?”
People are concerned, but if and when the mess might be cleaned up is anyone’s guess.
Unusually inclement weather has kept many volunteer groups at bay this year, and a dispute between the state departments of Corrections and Transportation has idled inmate work crews that normally pick up roadside trash.
Also, a pay crisis has meant fewer Washington State Patrol troopers are on the road to write citations to people who toss paper cups out the window or refuse to put a tarp on their pickup beds while on a run to the transfer station.
And the money the state allocates for roadside garbage cleanup is not keeping pace with a growing population, said Barbara LaBoe, a spokeswoman with the Transportation Department.
In short, it’s a mess.
‘How awful it is’
Gig Harbor resident John McMillan and his wife, Mary Manning, recently volunteered to pick up garbage along Randall Drive Northwest just southeast of the city limits.
The experience opened their eyes, McMillan said.
“When you pick up a lot of trash, you start noticing trash,” he said.
What he and Manning soon noticed was heaps of plastic bags, paper cups and other garbage along state Route 16 just west of the Tacoma Narrows bridges.
“With all the vegetation died back, you can just see how awful it is,” Manning said.
In addition to state Route 16 and I-5, trash is accumulating in alarming levels on state Route 3 near Bremerton and on state Route 509 along the Port of Tacoma, where debris and trash have blown into drifts like snow on the prairie.
LaBoe said the feeling that litter is proliferating is not misplaced.
“Roadside litter has been increasing for many years, and this time of time of year it’s particularly noticeable because youth and volunteer crews don’t work as much during the winter, and vegetation is more bare, exposing more of the litter,” she said.
Why the increase?
LaBoe said it’s several things.
“Improperly secured loads contribute to trash, as do drivers who litter,” she said. “An increase in homeless encampments can also add trash and debris along roadsides and rights of way.”
An increase in the population exacerbates all that.
The population of Pierce County grew by about 37,000 people between 2010-14, according to the state Employment Security Department, which tracks such things.
More people mean more unsecured loads and more illegally pitched paper cups.
“Litter is a far-reaching concern, and WSOT heavily relies on its partners — such as local government, businesses, law enforcement and the public — to help address this issue,” LaBoe said. “That includes working together to share cleanup responsibilities, but also increasing awareness and enforcement to prevent litter in the first place.
“Properly covering and securing loads, for example, greatly reduces the amount of litter along roadways.”
One way to persuade people to follow litter laws is to cite them when they don’t.
Litter citations issued by the State Patrol in 2016 were down across the board compared with the year before, said Sgt. James Prouty, a spokesman for the agency.
Troopers issued 5,668 citations for driving with unsecured loads in 2015 but 5,485 last year.
“That definitely correlates to our vacancies,” Prouty said.
Troopers left the State Patrol at a concerning rate in 2015 — about nine a month — to take higher paying jobs at other law enforcement agencies.
The Legislature voted last year to increase the troopers’ pay, which has stemmed the tide of departures, but the State Patrol still had about 120 vacancies as of March 1, Prouty said.
The agency is budgeted for 671 troopers this year.
Other litter prevention measures also have fallen by the wayside, including a state law that required drivers to have a litter bag inside their vehicles.
The state once handed out such bags when drivers renewed their cars’ license tabs. That program disappeared when the law requiring litter bags was repealed in 2003.
‘Who takes care of it?’
OK, so there’s a lot of litter out there.
McMillan wonders why it isn’t being picked up.
“Who takes care of that?” he asked. “Is it prisoners? Does the state have funding for such a thing?”
LaBoe said the state allocates about $4 million a year for litter cleanup.
“Unfortunately, even with this large expenditure, the litter cleanup needs are greater,” she said. “Limited funding means cleanups often fall behind other maintenance priorities.”
Those include emergency roadway repairs, fixing broken guardrails and mowing roadside grass to ensure good sight lines, LaBoe said.
As for the prisoners, there’s a problem with that.
As first reported by KIRO-TV, a contract that has allowed the Transportation Department to use inmate work crews to pick up litter along the state’s highways since 2000 was suspended indefinitely last year when liability questions were raised.
“The concern is L&I (state Department of Labor & Industries) liability for work crew members who might be injured during the work, or if a work crew member were the cause or somehow involved in a vehicle collision while working on highway right of way,” LaBoe said.
The Transportation Department is leery of assuming that liability because the inmates are not agency employees, she said.
Jeremy Barclay, a Corrections Department spokesman, told The News Tribune recently that officials performing a routine review of the contract last year discovered the liability problem.
The agencies had hoped the Legislature would pass a law during this session to resolve the issue, but a bill died in committee, LaBoe said.
Barclay said the agencies now are involved in “active discussions” to try to come to an arrangement, but, “I don’t have a timetable for that resolution.”
“We’ve used DOC crews for more than 20 years, and both agencies want to continue that relationship,” LaBoe said.
The loss of those crews is no small matter.
Inmate workers supplied about 1.8 million hours of work to the Transportation Department and other state agencies from 2012-15, Barclay said.
Adopt a highway
In the battle against litter, the Transportation Department will take help from law-abiding folks as well, LaBoe said.
“Our volunteer Adopt-A-Highway program also is an invaluable tool to help address roadside litter,” she said. “We provide training and equipment to groups who help us keep our state beautiful.”
Information on that program can be found at bit.ly/2oAJhHS.
The state might have some takers in Manning and McMillan, who were motivated by their work along Randall Drive Northwest.
“We’d be happy to help,” Manning said.
Judging by the mess along state highways this year, the Transportation Department could use all the help it can get.
The number of tickets handed out by state troopers for litter-related violations dropped from 2015 to 2016. State patrol officials say that correlates with a dearth of troopers on the road.
Source: Washington State Patrol