Speeding down the highway, drivers pass sign after ubiquitous sign: exits, tolls, speed limits.
But one of those signs was born in Tyler — Adopt-a-Highway.
Just north of Loop 323 on U.S. Highway 69, signs mark the Tyler Civitan Club's two-mile stretch. Above the typical blue-and-white road sign rests a brown one boasting: "First Adopt a Highway in the world." The signs installed on March 9, 1985, now International Adopt-a-Highway Day.
The idea sprang from one Texas Department of Transportation engineer driving through Tyler in 1984.
The Tyler district's James R. "Bobby" Evans saw debris flying out of a truck bed he was behind, according to the TxDOT website. So Evans started appealing to local groups to "adopt" a highway section because he was concerned about litter and the rising cost to clean it up.
It took a while to catch on.
Eventually, Billy Black, the then-public information officer for the region, took up the cause, developing the program, creating a cleanup cycle, implementing the concept and installing the Adopt-a-Highway signs, according to TxDOT.
Within months of the Civitan Club becoming the first adopting group, more than 50 organizations in the region were on board.
Today, there are more than 200 adopted highways in the region, said Larry Krantz, TxDOT public information officer.
"It's a volunteer program and as such it's been very successful," he said.
Statewide, 4,500 groups participate. Globally, the number surpasses 90,000, according to TxDOT.
Some groups are getting creative with the program.
Opponents of government surveillance have figured out how to get close to a heavily guarded National Security Agency data storage center set to open in a Salt Lake City suburb, The Associated Press reported.
They adopted a highway that cuts through a National Guard base where the $1.7 billion facility, filled with super computers designed to store intercepted telecommunications, is set to open.
The Utah Department of Transportation awarded a section of Route 68 to the group "Restore the Fourth" — a reference to the Fourth Amendment right prohibiting unlawful search and seizure. The highway keepers will carry picket signs while picking up litter, said Lorina Potter, an organizer for the Utah chapter of the group.
"We welcome efforts of the public to keep our roads clean" — even if a group has a political agenda, said Muriel Xochimitl, a spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Transportation. "We review applications on the merits."
The program hasn't been without controversies in other states. Adoptions by the Ku Klux Klan in Missouri and the American Nazi Party in Oregon stirred public outcry. The Ku Klux Klan case went to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled the program couldn't bar the group based only on the group's purpose because it violated the First Amendment.
In Pennsylvania, a Pittsburgh strip club sponsors a stretch of Interstate 376, but it pays a fee for state workers to do the cleanup instead of strippers. PennDOT officials told KDKA CBS any business can sponsor a road because it saves the taxpayers money.
In Texas, one of the benefits of the Adopt-a-Highway program is the savings for the department.
According to TxDOT, Texas saves about $5 million annually in clean-up expenses as volunteers pick up litter on about 9,000 miles — about 10 percent — of state-maintained roads.
"The contract is to pick up four times a year for two years," Krantz said.
There's no cost to apply, and generally, the adoptions are renewed until groups are not picking up anymore or they tell TxDOT they want to stop, Krantz said.
To adopt a highway, the group or individual must live in the county or the adjacent county where the adopted stretch is, must commit to a minimum of two miles for two years, clean the roadway four times a year and attend safety meetings twice a year, among several other guidelines from the program. Adopt-a-Highway provides safety vests, trash bags and training.
While particular places can be requested, the department can deny applications for safety reasons.
"For example, not on the interstate," Krantz said.
Visit TxDOT's Adopt-a-Highway website, http://bit.ly/19POJ6D, for information on adopting a highway.