Clean California initiative would direct $1.5 billion toward cleaning roadways, education campaign

Caltrans officials see a $1.5 billion beautification initiative proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom as the sweeping approach needed to clean up long-troubled state roadways, but also convince Californians that keeping streets trash-free is a group effort.

The initiative, Clean California, would allocate money across the state for litter removal, infrastructure enhancements, educational programs and art projects. Part of the governor’s California Comeback Plan, it proposes a three-year effort to beautify roadways leveraging community partnerships and adding thousands of jobs, officials said.

“I think this is the first time in the state’s history, the entire state’s history, that we’re taking a comprehensive approach to this challenge,” Caltrans Director Toks Omishakin said of the proposal that needs the Legislature’s approval before July 1.

Robert Walker with Caltrans, picks up trash along the 57 freeway just south of the 91 freeway in Anaheim on Wednesday morning, June 23, 2021. The state’s clean-up initiative, called Clean California, would allocate millions across the state for litter removal, educational programs, infrastructure enhancements and art projects. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Scott McLeod, left, and Robert Walker with Caltrans, pick up a piles of trash at the intersection of the 57 and 91 freeways in Anaheim on Wednesday morning, June 23, 2021. The state’s clean-up initiative, called Clean California, would allocate millions across the state for litter removal, educational programs, infrastructure enhancements and art projects. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The educational aspect of Clean California would set it apart from clean-up efforts in years past, which failed to have a lasting impact, Omishakin said. The goal is to teach Californians the importance of keeping roadways debris-free, but also “to revive pride in the public space,” he said.

And, a third of the $1.5 billion proposed would go to cities, counties, tribal governments and other local transit agencies, Omishakin said, which “know a little bit more directly on the ground, on their highways, and on the state highway sometimes, you know, where those needs are.”

“I think this is the first time that it’s more holistic than just saying, ‘Hey go out there and get a crew out there and pick up the litter on the highway.’”

The proposed funding would come as some Caltrans districts are seeing a notable increase in the amount of litter piling up on freeways they are responsible for.

In Orange County, the agency estimates maintenance crews have picked up roughly 30% more trash on roads so far this year over 2020, said Bobi Hettick, deputy director of maintenance and operations for Caltrans District 12, which covers the county. Compared to 2019, which Hettick considers a “baseline” for litter collected, crews have already picked up more than 5,000 additional cubic yards of trash in the first six months of 2021.

“We’ve experienced just a hurricane of litter over the last two years,” Hettick said. “The increase has been significant.”

Much comes from uncovered loads in the back of trucks, she said, describing trucks that fly along the highway not realizing that the unsecured junk is falling out. Graffiti has also increased, along with illegal dumping, she said.

This year, Caltrans in Orange County spent about $7.06 million of its $45 million maintenance budget, roughly 16%, cleaning up litter, District 12 spokeswoman Darcy Birden said in an email. Two years ago, the agency spent just 7%, she said.

“Despite Caltrans’ efforts to address litter clean-up needs, additional resources are necessary,” Birden said.

While the trash has increased, the partnerships through which the district previously received help cleaning its roads disappeared during the pandemic’s shutdowns, leaving the increased litter load for a smaller number of workers to pick up, Hettick said. The agency in the past partnered with organizations and received clean-up help through court referrals requiring community service, she said.

“It’s been impossible to keep up, because the other programs that helped us had stopped and the volume just got so much more,” Hettick said, seeing no end in sight for the trash piles.

With funding from Clean California, the district is looking to hire two dedicated litter crews of roughly eight to 10 people, along with other roles to support the initiative, she said.

The district was given authorization to go ahead and make hires, “with the promise that Clean California was going to support these positions,” Hettick said. Job fairs for District 12 are planned for July 8 and 9 at the Ehlers Event Center in Buena Park and the Downtown Anaheim Community Center, respectively.

Eric Carpenter, spokesman for Orange County Transportation Authority, said while an amount the agency might receive through the proposal hasn’t been determined, OCTA leaders believe “we could benefit with funds to enhance cleaning of transit stations throughout the county.”

Currently, the agency has to use money collected through the half-cent Measure M sales tax to fund projects that help remove “transportation-related debris and pollution” before it gets to the water, Carpenter said.

“Protecting the environment as we keep Orange County moving is one of OCTA’s key goals,” he said. “And we appreciate the state’s partnership in helping protect what makes our county such a special place to live.”

Across the state, Caltrans estimates Clean California will result in the removal of an additional 21,000 tons of litter – roughly 1.2 million cubic yards – from roadways over its three-year period. In 2020, Caltrans collected 267,000 cubic yards, the agency said.

In Los Angeles and Ventura counties, Caltrans is looking to hire between 100 and 150 entry level employees to help with litter collection, Godson Okereke, acting deputy director of maintenance for District 7, said through a spokesperson. The district is hosting a job fair June 29 at a Bridge Home shelter near USC.

In District 8, which covers Riverside and San Bernardino counties, funds through Clean California would stretch far, said district spokesman David Matza, helping reach rural and remote areas near Arizona and Nevada that are often overlooked. The district, which spans roughly 28,650 square miles, is the biggest among agency’s 12, and crews struggle at times to maintain it all, he said.

The district plans to hire nearly 30 workers with Clean California money. The initiative, he said, “will allow us to help reach these underserved areas and address some backlogs and, not just the litter and debris, but also kind of revitalizing these gateways to California.”

Matza said being able to fund art and beautification projects “creates community identity” for cities and counties.

“It’s always been a challenge to find the funds to actually do these kind of beautification projects,” he said. “But with Clean California, we should be able to expand these efforts, because a lot of times, cities and counties, they want to do this as well.”

A shared mindset “that we all need to work together to keep our roadways clean,” would be a key component in being able to maintain the project’s goals past the three-year allocation of funds, he said.

“We can always go out there and clean, but unless the public and our partners are also on board with it,” he said, “it’s hard to keep our progress that we made stay.”

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