We have all seen what a mess our roads are, full of garbage, an absolute nightmare. How did we get here? And what is being done about it? We certainly can’t leave the situation like it is, it’s infuriating and completely unsustainable.
First a little history. Since 1971 Washington has had a retail tax on items typically found along the roadside to fund litter cleanup, waste reduction, and recycling program. That generated about $11M a year. But starting in 2009 the legislature diverted around $40M for other programs. That eliminated all of the litter prevention programs and severely cut back any clean-up. Since then, as the amount of trash increases, the situation gets worse as it enabled even more trash and the problem multiplied; blight causes more blight. Starting in 2019 the state started to address the problem again. But then Covid hit, and there has been no state Litter Crew cleanup nor use of labor from the Department of Corrections.
In 2021 the legislature authorized some small grants for cleanup at state highway on/off ramps. There is $40k designated for Thurston County, I don’t know if it’s been used, but that is barely enough money to do one thorough cleaning.
Last year DOT produced a report titled, “Public Health Associated with Homeless Encampments on Department owned rights of way,” in which the cleanup and management of the Wheeler Camp is budgeted at $200k, which shows how the cost magnifies the longer it takes to address the mess.
That won’t go very far considering all the interchanges we have in the county and the sad condition they are in. There are hundreds of sites across the state that need addressing, an overwhelming situation.
There is only about $9M in the two-year budget for all litter pickup, prevention and enforcement in the state, which simply isn’t enough money compared to the magnitude of the problem. There was a bill in the legislature this year, SB 5739, to fund more money for cleanup from a $1 tax on tires, but it didn’t make it out of committee. So no new funding.
But the interchanges are only a small part of the problem as anyone driving our highways can see. Between 1999 and 2004 the amount of litter along the roads decreased showing us we were moving in the right direction. We have now lost that momentum and have indeed a much worse situation. So the level of funding required now vs. then is much higher. And only the state has the financial wherewithal to handle a problem of this magnitude.
Something to keep in mind is that only a portion of the trash is coming from the homeless camps, although those areas are very visible and noticeable problems. Sadly, litter begets more litter, and a huge amount of what we see is simply the build up from carelessness or deliberate disregard. That’s why there is trash all over, on small roads and large.
So. What to do? Fortunately, the state is starting up their litter crews again. This will certainly help, but it won’t be sufficient to get back to how clean our roads used to be. There is also the Adopt-a-Highway program, which is an opportunity for everyone - individuals, businesses and civic organizations - to help. And it will definitely take a broad effort in order to get everything cleaned up. We can also lobby our local elected officials to leverage the state funds and start cleaning up around here. They have done some of that, but there is a long way to go and like so many things, the work starts at home. It’s too late to affect this legislative session, but we can use the off season to work with our legislators for increased funding next year. Because of the magnitude of the problem it will take more money.
All of us can help. One thing my walking partner and I started doing is simply carrying a bag on our walks so we can clean up; every little bit helps, and once an area looks clean people become less likely to add to the mess.
Like so many large issues resulting from numerous causes – the economy, Covid, homelessness, feeling disconnected from our community – this issue will take a while to resolve. It took years and a pandemic to get to this crisis point, it’s going to take some time and continued effort to get it fixed.
Pat Cole - email@example.com - is a former member of Olympia's city council. As a private citizen, he seeks to set a positive tone and lead informed discussions about local civic issues.
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