Adopt-a-Highway history
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Adopt-a-Highway history

It all started in the Lone Star State

Did you know the first highway ever adopted was right here in Texas?

The seeds of the program were planted in 1963 when James R. “Bobby” Evans, then a young engineer in the San Angelo District, was assigned to show an educational film to civic organizations and schools in the area. The film, titled “Money to Burn,” illustrated the harms of littering along the highway.  While it struck a chord with Evans, the message didn’t seem to have an effect on the traveling public – just yet.

In 1984 Evans, who was now the Tyler District Engineer, was able to figure out a way to make this concern connect with communities.  He was driving through Tyler one day when he observed debris blowing out of the bed of the pickup truck he was following.

Alarmed by the incident and concerned that the cost of picking up litter was increasing at an annual rate of 15 to 20 percent, Evans challenged a local group to “adopt” a section of highway.  Although the challenge went unanswered, the idea was born.

Champion for the cause

After discussing his thoughts and ideas with Billy Black, Public Information Officer for TxDOT’s Tyler District, Evans asked Billy to take the lead as the Department’s spokesperson. Black was responsible not only for creating a quarterly cleanup cycle for adopting organizations, but also for implementing the initial concept, which included furnishing volunteer safety training, reflective vests and equipment – and for erecting the well-known Adopt-a-Highway roadside signs that recognize adopters.

The Tyler Civitan Club soon became the first group to volunteer, adopting a two-mile stretch of US Highway 69.

The word spreads

The rest, as they say, is history.  Within months, more than 50 groups in the region – garden clubs and scouting groups among them – had joined the program, which would blanket Texas and quickly spread nationwide.

Signs recognizing the Tyler Civitans’ section of roadway (“First Adopt-a-Highway in the Nation”) were erected on March 9, 1985 – a day that has subsequently been named international Adopt-a-Highway Day. 

Going global

Demonstrating the value of a successful public-private partnership, today Adopt-a-Highway is a grassroots movement involving nearly 90,000 groups in 49 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Japan.

Trash-off history

The Don’t Mess with Texas Trash-Off is rooted in the Adopt-a-Highway program.  Originally called the Great Texas Trash-Off, the event began in 1986 as a call to action to refrain from littering on one designated day. 

In 1987, the Trash-Off event was expanded to include litter pickup because research has shown that people are less likely to litter when the roadside is clean.  In 1993, Keep Texas Beautiful volunteers joined Adopt-A-Highway volunteers for the Trash-Off, raising the total number of participants in Texas to 85,000.

From these humble origins, the event has evolved and continues to enjoy increasing success.