Bill Newton was a motorcycle guy looking to change the general public's impression of people like him. So, he and some of his fellow leather-clad, bearded bikers signed up to pick up trash on the side of a piece of Reisterstown Road in the center of their town.
These days, the Freedom Few Motorcycle Club of Maryland Inc. is a full-fledged charity that has done countless good deeds and participated in and even launched several programs to help their neighbors and others. And, nearly two decades later, they are still picking up litter. The group is one of the longest serving in the state's Adopt-A-Highway Program.
"We still want a nice, clean town with everything in its place and orderly," said Newton, an artist-turned-shop owner-carpenter. "Like a lot of things, you start off with good intentions to help the environment and your town, and maybe yourself, and you get wrapped up in it."
The program, which turns 20 in April, has grown from this motorcycle club and a Boy Scout troop to more than 1,000 participating groups. They have adopted more than half of the available miles of secondary roadways, including about three-quarters of the available roadway in the Baltimore region. Officials are looking to push up the numbers, which have stayed constant for the past few years.
Coupled with another program that allows businesses to sponsor a portion of interstate highway and inmate labor, Adopt-A-Highway has saved the state millions of dollars in funding that would have come out of State Highway Administration coffers.
Something that may help the cause in the future is the "green" movement that has led more Americans to recycle, conserve energy and use public transportation.
"People want to feel more involved with their future and their environment," said David Buck, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration. "Look at things like recycling, which 15, 20 years ago was for a person who considered himself an environmentalist. Now it's just for any person. It's much more mainstream and second nature."
To participate in the Adopt-A-Highway program, families, Scout troops, schools, businesses and civic associations get a little training and agree to pick up trash at least four times a year for two years along a one- to three-mile stretch of road. Many send volunteers out more often than that, and many groups sign up over and over again.
The motorcycle club, for example, goes out up to a dozen times a year, and members have no plans to stop caring for their stretch of road.
In exchange, they are provided with orange vests, trash bags and a metal sign declaring a portion of the road has been adopted by the group.
In all, there are 1,032 groups signed on to the program, according to Buck. They have adopted 1,511 of the possible 2,888 miles of eligible state roads. Those include Bel Air Road, Frederick Road, Liberty Road and York Road, and many others that aren't interstates, which would pose safety risks for volunteers.
On that front, a corporate program, launched by state highway officials as a pilot in fall of 2005, has attracted 46 companies, he says. They sponsor 132 interstate road segments out of 192 available by paying professionals to clear litter.
Buck says each bag of trash that state workers don't have to pick up saves Maryland taxpayers about $29. In fiscal 2008, the volunteers picked up 6,564 bags of trash, saving the state close to $200,000. The total saved is estimated at about $3 million.
To be sure, the state still picks up its share of trash.
The average regional highway administration maintenance shop spends about two days a week removing litter, which takes time from other duties including fixing potholes, clearing drains, managing traffic and mowing.
Buck says the department has been working on educational programs to teach young people, as well as some adults, about the harm in littering in the first place.
"We have a ways to go," he said. "It'll take a cultural change or a change in mindset. It might not be a fair comparison, but like drinking and driving, we have to make littering not socially acceptable."
For more information about the Adopt-A-Highway Program, call 877-624-6863 or go to www.sha.state.md.us.
by the numbers
1,032 : The number of groups signed onto the Adopt-A-Highway Program
1,511 : The number of miles adopted out of the eligible 2,888 miles of state roads
$29 : The approximate amount each bag of volunteer-collected trash saves Maryland taxpayers
6,564 : The number of bags of trash adopters picked up in fiscal year 2008
$3 million : The total amount the state has saved through volunteers' trash pickup