A few years back the state Department of Ecology ran a public information campaign to discourage roadside littering.
“Litter and It Will Hurt” was meant to get the message across that discarded rubbish was just plain ugly and harmful to the environment, but also that fines for littering and unsecured truck loads pack a punch from $50 on up to $5,000.
But a number of factors in recent years have resulted in an increase of roadside trash. Despite that increase, the “Litter and It Will Hurt” campaign has been tossed aside. The Ecology Department’s webpage for the campaign notes in red type: “Beginning in 2009 funding for the … campaign was suspended due to transfer of litter tax monies to fund other state priorities. … The campaign material on these websites is for historical purposes.”
Recent stories in The News Tribune have pointed out a pile of problems that have meant fewer crews picking up trash along roads and highways and less emphasis on enforcement of laws that discourage the litterbugs among us.
Less trash is being picked up by state crews and volunteers, but not because there’s less of it out there. The Tribune noted Department of Ecology statistics that showed 5.7 million pounds of litter from 33,458 miles of roads were collected in 2009. That had dropped to 3.8 million pounds from 20,068 miles of roads in 2015.
A state Department of Transportation spokeswoman, Linda LaBoe, told the Tribune that some of the increase is seasonal; fewer hired crews are out during the winter, and poor weather this spring has also discouraged crews, especially volunteers who “adopt” sections of roads and highways.
But the state’s budget crunch since the Great Recession and budget and tax decisions lawmakers made have cut into efforts to pick up litter and crack down on litter bugs.
In recent years, a pay gap sent many Washington State Patrol troopers to better-paying jobs with city police departments and county sheriff’s offices. The Legislature has since increased pay, and the tide of departures has eased, but the patrol still has about 120 vacancies to fill, meaning fewer troopers on the road to cite those who litter or fail to properly secure loads.
Ticketing litter scofflaws isn’t the most important job that troopers do, but the drop in citations reflects budgeting decisions for the state’s law enforcement agency that certainly affected the State Patrol’s other duties in protecting lives on the highways.
And while the state collects a “litter tax,” which was adopted more than 45 years ago and collects about $10 million each year from the proceeds on several consumer products, only about half of that goes toward litter prevention and cleanup work. Since 2009, about $5 million annually has been diverted to maintenance of state parks, as lawmakers went hunting for various “painless” sources to plug a range of budget holes. The diversion was intended to be temporary and there were pledges from lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee to restore the program funding, a Tribune story noted, but education funding concerns this year have delayed that promise.
No one wants to see funding reduced for the Washington State Parks system, but one state program shouldn’t have to see its intended funding skimmed off to keep another agency operating.
Diversions have been common from other funds over recent years — such as from one that allows cities and counties to obtain low-interest loans for road maintenance and other public works projects — as lawmakers have looked to avoid making tough choices regarding necessary taxes and tax reforms.
The roadside litter is a reminder not just to be more careful about securing loads and stowing litter rather than tossing it out a window; it’s a call to be realistic about paying for the services we require and to expect lawmakers to stop diverting resources from one fund to another and hoping it won’t be noticed.
Those bad decisions on budgets and taxes are piling up, like so much trash along the highway.
Give a hoot
Snohomish County and the state offer opportunities for volunteer groups to adopt a road or highway for litter cleanup.
For information on the county’s Adopt-a-Road program go http://tinyurl.com/SnoCoAdoptARoad.
For information on the state’s Adopt-a-Highway program go to http://tinyurl.com/WSDOTadopt.