A push for long-term solutions to a growing litter problem along Vienna-area highways has begun after calls from local residents brought state attention to the level of garbage on the streets last month.
Two roadways maintained by the Virginia Department of Transportation, Hunter Mill Drive and State Route 123, came under the scrutiny of transportation officials after residents approached state Del. Steve Shannon (D-35), annoyed with the amount of garbage on local roadsides.
"Call me crazy but I just don't think that my community should be someone's trash can," said Mike Casey, an Oakton resident and president of the Avon Park Civic Association, an organization of residents close to the intersection. "I think it has been too long in this country since we've had a public campaign to tell people that they should pick up after themselves."
State transportation staff and officials are now reviewing potential solutions for the problem, such as regular trash pick-up efforts provided by non-violent inmate street clean-up groups of the Fairfax County Sheriff's Office, an increased level of state attention to the roads and a public information campaign, according to Shannon.
"This is a problem that is becoming pervasive," said Shannon. "There hasn't been a major initiative in recent years to address this issue ... and that needs to be changed."
THE TWO STRETCHES of highway are a part of about 10,000 miles of roadway in Fairfax County that fall under the maintenance jurisdiction of VDOT, according to state transportation officials. Last year, the department spent approximately $1 million on grass cutting and litter pickups on those roads, according to Dennis Morrison, Northern Virginia district administrator for VDOT.
In addition to seasonal street sweeping, each segment of highway experiences litter pickup efforts approximately three times a year, Morrison said. Certain "heavily saturated" areas such as the Fairfax County Parkway are the target of additional crews a few more times a year, he added.
"If I had my wishes, people wouldn't throw out their trash on to the streets," Morrison said. "What they don't realize is that all that they're throwing out is peoples' taxes, because we're having to go out there and pick it all up."
And the problem of litter build-up on streets has not been improving in the area in recent years. Morrison pointed to a decline in membership of community "adopt-a-highway" programs and an increase in total traffic volume and population as further stretching the limits of an already-tight litter cleanup budget.
"We just don't have the staff to get out there every time we see" garbage on the roads, he said. "As the area gets more populated, it's just getting more difficult for VDOT to keep the areas as clean as the residents are used to seeing."
There are no immediate plans for increased funding to VDOT for the express purpose of addressing the litter, Morrison added.
PICKING UP SOME of the extra weight that has been placed on the shoulders of VDOT by the area's ballooning population is the Fairfax County Sheriff's Office. Deputies use public service crews composed of inmates of Fairfax County who are serving sentences for minor, non-violent crimes, to pick up trash and maintain landscaping.
This program was brought to Shannon's attention after initial media reports surfaced of his interest in litter removal for the region, he said.
"From our standpoint, using inmate labor is a great long-term solution to this kind of problem," said Fairfax County Sheriff's Office Lt. Tyler Corie, a former crew supervisor. "We're saving the taxpayers [money] ... and getting out there when the state might not be able to on a regular basis."
The program, which is voluntary for prisoners serving time for certain crimes who are looking for fresh air and reductions in sentences, can typically get out to an affected area for a cleanup effort within a week of an assignment, Corie said. The only hindrance to its abilities to address areas on a regular basis is in its number of deputies assigned to the crew, he added.
WHILE OFFICIALS are working towards increasing litter pickup units to the area, the ultimate solution will need to come from increased community involvement and public awareness, according to officials and staff.
"It's more than just what the state government can do, it's the local governments, it's the citizens themselves getting the word out," said Morrison. "It's people not throwing things out of their windows while they're driving."
An ultimate solution must be a two-pronged approach to first clean up local roadways and work with community members to keep them clean, Shannon said.
"We don't need new legislation to make this happen, we just need a coordinated effort to find trouble spots and get clean-up to them on a consistent basis," he said. "The biggest obstacle is in raising public awareness."
And approaching the public may very well be the most economically efficient and effective way of dealing with the problem, Casey said.
"We'd save time and money here if we were talking to people on a regular basis," he said, "telling them that it's not OK to dump your trash wherever you choose."