By Gregory B. Hladky
1:25 PM EDT, July 31, 2012
Businesses are, in the lexicon of the Munchkins from the Wizard of Oz, "morally, ethically... positively, absolutely... undeniably and reliably" banned from putting advertising directly on major highways in Connecticut.
Unless, of course, they spend a few thousand dollars a year to "Adopt A Highway."
This non-advertising form of advertising has become such a hot ticket item that both sides of Interstate 95 along Connecticut's wealthy Gold Coast (a distance of something like 23 miles) have been "adopted" and are emblazoned with company names.
"Greenwich all the way up through the Fairfield area is completely taken and there's a waiting list," says Joyce Urman, the New England representative of Adopt-A-Highway Litter Removal Service of America.
Urman works for one of the two companies that you can hire in this state to pick up litter from your section of interstate or state highways. Theoretically, that's what your company or group is paying more than $4,000 a year for: a sign to let people know that you're picking up the tab for litter cleanup along two miles of highway you've adopted.
Connecticut officials have always insisted that the corporate signage resulting from the Adopt-A-Highway program isn't really about promoting the businesses involved.
"It's not an advertisement in our eyes," says Kevin Nursick, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Transportation. "It's more a voluntary, community-service type of program."
That was the wholesome idea behind the Adopt-A-Highway thing when it went into effect in Connecticut back in 1994.
But it's become something quite a bit different in the eyes of the companies making money off the program.
According to the Adopt A Highway Maintenance Corporation (the competitor to Urman's outfit), paying the money to have your business name up on one of these signs is a great money maker.
You can "gain recognition from thousands of potential customers driving by your sign on America's busiest highways and interstates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week." You can "Increase sales... and brand your product or services."
A chart included on one Adopt-A-Highway website touts the cost of one of the adoption signs as just .20 cents "per thousand views." Which turns out to be a bargain compared to $27.50 per thousand views for a newspaper ad, or $25 per thousand views for a "zoned spot cable" ad.
Urman argues that these signs don't fit the definition of traditional ads. "Rather than advertising, it's more of a branding tool," she says. "When people see it, they know your business sponsors two miles of highway and will keep it clean."
She also says that one of these signs "usually brings in more business."
There are some advertising billboards directly on state property, but DOT officials say most of those 120-or-so commercial signs are along rail lines, not highways.
Back in 2009, then-Gov.M. Jodi Relltried to make Connecticut the fifth state in the nation to totally ban billboards from state highways (the other four being Maine, Vermont, Alaska and Hawaii). That effort was rejected by state lawmakers, so Rell issued an executive order that's still in effect forbidding the DOT from renewing any of those existing billboard leases or approving any new ones. Most of those 120 leases will be up in 2016, Nursick says.
All of which could make getting an Adopt-A-Highway sign even more popular.
In Connecticut, it will cost about $4,350 to get your name on a 60-inch by 48-inch sign erected on one of the major highways for the first year, Urman says. That includes $750 for designing and making the sign and putting it up, plus $300 every month for cleaning up the garbage on your cute little highway section.
You can't put your telephone number or web address up there, unless that info is part of your officially registered business name, which it is in some cases.
The costs are far less for getting a sign on a secondary (non-interstate) state highway. In those cases, the DOT will make up and erect the sign, and the adopting group can stage its own litter cleanup parties.
That sort of thing was the original concept behind adopting highways.
According to the DOT's website, highway adoption is "a beautification program intended to encourage community and civic organizations, businesses, nonprofit organizations and private citizens to participate in a continuing effort to keep the roadsides of Connecticut attractive and clean from litter."
State officials reserve the right to decide which highway sections can be adopted and by whom. (In Georgia, there's a legal battle over the KKK's attempt to adopt a section of highway there. Georgia transportation officials rejected the request and the ACLU is going to bat for the KKK.)
In Connecticut, there were questions back in 2009 when the sexy stuff emporium LUV Boutique joined the Adopt-A-Highway program and got signs put up on several locations along I-91 and I-95. Those signs led to headlines like "Auto Erotic." Nursick says that company decided not to renew its highway sponsorships. "But we didn't boot them," he adds.
The central Adopt-A-Highway idea is that you'd adopt a two-mile section of highway and pick up the litter (or pay someone to). That way the state wouldn't have to pay someone to pick up the litter.
Urman says her company is now picking up litter for more than 50 highway adopters, and believes the competing firm is doing about the same.
And there's a lot of trash along our highways. Our DOT spends about $2 million a year cleaning up empty beer cans, used condoms, cigar butts, and every other sort of refuse you can imagine.
"We clean it up, they (meaning our motoring public) throw more of it out," says Nursick.
The question of exactly how much in litter pick-up costs the Adopt-A-Highway program is saving Connecticut taxpayers is difficult to answer, but it probably ain't a lot.
"It saves something," Nursick acknowledges, "but it's hard to quantify… We think it would be marginal in terms of what it would be saving."
On the other hand, seems like adopting our highways could be a profitable sort of philanthropic endeavor for businesses.
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