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Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2007 | San Diego commuter Myron Shelley likes to play a mental game as he drives along the county’s freeways, bumping across uneven paving and looking out at what he says are unacceptable amounts of trash piling up at the side of the road.

Shelley imagines which of the region’s public officials he would like to name each thoroughfare after. He assigns each of the freeways he traverses on his morning commute the name of a current or former city or county official, basing his decision on how badly maintained each road is and how much he disliked each politician.

“I always think to myself, we should dedicate this to one of our former mayors or one of the former city managers. In my mind, I always think ‘This is the so-and-so memorial roadway,’” Shelley said.

When it comes to the condition of San Diego’s freeways, commuters like Shelley can’t blame the city government, however. Maintaining the freeways falls under the jurisdiction of the state government.

Every day, tens of thousands of commuters like Shelley travel the hundreds of miles of freeways that crisscross San Diego County. As the traffic crawls during the morning and evening rush hours, drivers can look out of their windows and enjoy the landscaping that abuts the tarmac on Interstates 5, 15 and 8 and the county’s lesser freeways.

But often that view is marred by the detritus of those very commuters and the millions of people that rely on the freeways to get them from A to B. From large to small, the county’s trash has a nasty habit of building up where it’s not supposed to. Cigarette butts, fast food wrappers, plastic and paper, metal and rubber, San Diego’s freeways are all-too-often a dumping ground for hasty commuters and litterbugs alike.

And though officials at the local division of Caltrans, the state body responsible for keeping California’s freeways and highways clean, said the agency tries its hardest to keep the freeways clear, the official responsible for the cleanliness and maintenance of the county’s freeways says he doesn’t have the resources he needs to meet everyone’s aesthetic standards.

Talking Trash

  • The Issue: The official in charge of clearing trash from the side of the county’s freeways says he doesn’t have enough funding or resources to meet his ideal goals.
  • What It Means: Tens of thousands of commuters who use the county’s freeways spend their drives looking at trash that has collected at the side of the road.
  • The Bigger Picture: In addition to Caltrans’ problems, the County of San Diego has recently cancelled two hotlines aimed at litterbugs.

“For the last five years, our personnel and resources have not been up to par,” said Ray Aguiar, Caltrans maintenance area superintendent for San Diego. “We’re basically doing our best with the resources we have.”

Aguiar said the ultimate goal of trash collection in San Diego is to be able to pick up 2,500 cubic yards of trash each month. That’s the volume of litter his crews would have to be collecting in order for all of San Diego’s freeways to be “park-like,” he said.

Three years ago, Caltrans calculated how much it would cost it to pick up that much trash, Aguiar said. At the time, Caltrans workers were picking up about 1,200 cubic yards of trash a month and had a budget of $2.3 million a year. In 2005, boosting trash collection to the ideal level would have cost the agency a total of at least $3.3 million, or $1 million more than its allotted budget, Aguiar said.

Today, Caltrans collects about 1,600 cubic yards of trash a month from San Diego’s freeways, still well short of its ideal target. Since 2005, Aguiar’s budget has increased by about $200,000, but he said today it would cost the agency at least $4 million to pick up those 2,500 cubic yards of trash a month.

Each week, Aguiar and his team assess which of the county’s roadways need their special attention. In addition to a team of full-time maintenance employees, Caltrans pays contractors to clear trash and also pays groups that organize teams of probationers to go out on litter pick-ups.

Aguiar sets up weekly and daily trash collection schedules and directs his resources according to complaints he has received from citizens and visual inspections made by Caltrans employees.

Often, a maintenance team’s daily routine is dictated by a “spill” that has been reported to Caltrans. On a sunny morning in early January, crew leader Don Andrews and his team headed out in their minibus to clear a stretch of Interstate 15 that had been festooned with a covering of shredded paper, paper napkins and packs of plastic cups that had spilled from a truck.

“It’s a never-ending story,” Andrews said of his daily battle with the county’s litter. “There’s a stretch of the 15 that’s just constantly nasty. We can go out there and clean it and a week later it will look exactly the same.”

Aguiar said a significant portion of the trash that ends up on the county’s freeways comes, ironically, out of the back of garbage trucks. Overfilled garbage collection vehicles carrying litter to landfills often spill out trash that ends up at the side of the road, he said.

Melissa Perez, a spokeswoman for Waste Management in San Diego defended the trash collection industry. She said like most professional refuse collection companies, all of Waste Management’s trucks are fitted with a thick rubber seal that keeps the compacted trash squarely within the vehicle.

“For something to physically come out of those trucks is very, very difficult,” Perez said.

Pauline Martinson, executive director of I Love a Clean San Diego County, said unfortunately the county’s campaigns against litterbugs have fallen by the wayside recently. Two hotlines launched by the county for citizens to report littering have both recently been cancelled due to lack of funding, Martinson said.

She said freeway trash has been worsening as the county’s roads become more crowded. A lot of the litter at the side of the freeway spills from open truck beds, she said, and not much is actually consciously thrown from moving vehicles by unthinking drivers.

“I think most of the county’s residents are proud of where they live and wouldn’t do that,” she said.

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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