An inside look at MCDOT’s Adopt-A-Highway program

Seeing garbage along a roadway is never considered scenic.

Styrofoam cups or to-go containers along the side of the road are not only unsightly, but can take an average of 50 years to biodegrade. With this time frame and abundance of roadside trash, it is clear that a litter-free movement was desperately needed.

Many of you might recall two national advertising campaigns that came out in the 1970s to attack the problem of garbage being discarded.

The first, geared toward adults, was associated with a tear-in-the-eye Native American seeing the garbage and pollution wherever he traveled and the slogan, “Keep America Beautiful.” The second, geared toward children, was associated with a cartoon-talking owl, Woodsy, and the slogan, “Give a Hoot; Don’t Pollute.”

With litter along roads and pollution choking America, the green movement became more mainstream. It also was at this time that cleaning up garbage was deemed a high priority, and government took notice.

With local government budgets strained, local agencies began to think outside of the box. Organizations and groups always enjoy free advertisement, and most enjoy helping their communities. The first recognized Adopt-A-Highway group in the U.S. was the Tyler Citivan Club in 1985 along a 2-mile stretch of U.S. Route 69 in Texas.

The McHenry County Division of Transportation realized that with its vast network of roads throughout the county, having a volunteer program to help keep roads litter-free could be of great benefit to the MCDOT and volunteer groups. It was on July 18, 1995, that the McHenry County Board passed the Adopt-A-Highway program locally.

Over time, MCDOT divided its roads into half-mile to 1-mile sections, and made them available for volunteers to adopt. A given individual or group makes a request to adopt a specific section by completing an application.

Once their application has been received, it is brought before the county’s Transportation Committee and the County Board for approval. After being approved by the County Board, the volunteer group signs an agreement with the county to maintain a specific section of road four times a year for two years by picking up trash and keeping it litter free.

Some very energetic groups pick up litter on a monthly basis, and, in some outstanding cases, weekly, going far above and beyond the requirements of the program. Also at this time, a sign with the group’s name is posted along the section of road.

MCDOT provides each group with garbage bags, recycling bags, Clean Up Crew Working temporary signs, vests, litter pickers, T-shirts and an informational video. Clear plastic bags also are offered and supplied to those groups who so desire to keep items that they find that can be recycled to possibly help raise money for their specific Adopt-A-Highway group’s use.

Once the group has received its supplies it is able to schedule pick up dates. All this is coordinated through MCDOT, which records those dates and makes sure groups are picking up regularly. Sections that are not adopted are cleaned by MCDOT staff.

Currently, 146 groups maintain about 158 miles of county highways. These volunteers work tirelessly to help keep McHenry County clean and beautiful. Without their efforts, government employees would be needed to pick up litter on a regular basis, which could financially burden many local governments.

More information about the McHenry County Adopt-A-Highway program can be found on MCDOT’s website at and clicking on the Adopt-A-Highway link. You also can call me at 815-334-4970. Over time, some groups retire and new sections become available, while most groups that clean up their sections are welcome to renew their commitment every two years. Check the website to see what roads are currently available for adoption. 

In addition to MCDOT’s successful Adopt-A-Highway program, the Illinois Department of Transportation and several municipalities and townships have successful Adopt-A-Highway programs within the county to help keep other roads in the area litter-free.

As summer starts and more people are moving outside to enjoy warm weather, let’s all work to keep McHenry County beautiful. As Woodsy says, “Give a hoot; don’t pollute.” Happy and safe travels.

• Daigle is MCDOT’s planning liaison and Adopt-A-Highway coordinator.

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