Easter Seal volunteers are the first to join the area's new Adopt-a-Ramp effort.
By ROGER G. SMITH
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
HARLIE MINER CAN'T stand highway litter and is determined to make a difference, right now.
He invites you to join him.
Miner, Mahoning County manager for the Ohio Department of Transportation, is putting together a three-pronged effort to clean up Interstate 680. Volunteers maintaining highway ramps, more state workers and more jail inmates all factor in.
"Our goal is to someday ride down I-680 and get compliments from the people passing through and the people who ride through every day," Miner said.
Vindicator readers have declared litter -- particularly along I-680 -- the community eyesore they most want to see cleaned up. The finding was part of the newspaper's three-day series last month on blight.
Miner's efforts aren't a reaction to the outcry.
He already knew something had to be done after looking out his window when he arrived in the area a year ago from ODOT's Stark County office. His first thoughts driving the highway into town: "Terrible, a garbage dump."
A serious matter: Miner is serious about fighting litter.
One year in Stark County he had his employees drop their regular work for two weeks and do nothing but pick up trash. The effort cost $23,000, but it was needed and worth it, Miner said.
He vowed this spring to make highway cleanup a priority here.
Miner is turning to a method he used in his old job, similar to the well-known Adopt-a-Highway program. This one, however, focuses on ramps.
He's seeking groups interested in adopting an I-680 ramp, cleaning up trash and mowing the space from spring through fall.
ODOT will pick up items and mow an area first, then turn over the cleaned spot to the group adopting the ramp. Groups are to pick up litter and mow the space regularly. ODOT will haul away the bags of debris collected by volunteers.
"If they're willing to come out, I'm willing to supply the people and the equipment to haul it away. I'm willing to supply all the help we can," Miner said.
Targeting ramps: There are 26 active Adopt-a-Highway groups in Mahoning County that pick up trash from the roadsides, but ramps are a particular problem. People slow or stop there, then toss items out the window.
"There's much more trash on the ramps than the mainline," Miner said.
Also, ramps frequently run along city streets and behind people's homes, so the litter affects more than just drivers.
Miner is even willing to secure permission and till the soil on public spaces that ODOT controls so volunteers can plant stunning flower beds, such as the ones scattered around highways in Akron. There is less trash in areas where ramps are kept clean or flowers are planted, Miner said.
"I never see a piece of litter there," he said.
Stepping up: That's what Bill Addington and his colleagues at Easter Seals of Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana Counties Inc. want to achieve.
He and five to 10 employees and volunteers at Easter Seals are the first adopt-a-ramp group. Starting in the next week, every five to 10 days they will pick up and trim I-680's exit No. 5, which is next to their Edwards Street office. The group also is seeking a partnership with students, such as a fraternity or sorority.
Easter Seals was concerned about visitors seeing all the trash that litters the space, said Addington, the agency's chief development officer.
"You are what people perceive you to be. When people come into that city, that's what they see," he said. "That does not depict what this city is."
Councilman Artis Gillam Sr., D-1st, an Easter Seals board member, and his wife, Annie, brought the agency and ODOT together.
"We really appreciate Bill Addington's initiative to bring Easter Seals on," Gillam said.
Gillam and his wife are looking for many more volunteers to work with ODOT on highway ramps, several of which are in his ward.
Highway litter is a problem statewide, Miner said, but it's worse on I-680 because a landfill in Poland creates more garbage-truck traffic than usual. I-77 in Canton has a similar problem, he said.
State, county and local police don't have time to cite truck drivers who haven't secured their loads well enough to keep garbage inside. The result is trash dotting the highway.
Posing a hazard: Litter along highways, such as broken bottles, is a hazard to kids who are drawn to such areas, too. All kinds of dangerous items, including medical waste, turn up on roadsides.
"There's no end to the things we find out there," Miner said. "You just can't leave it."
Miner quickly found his staff couldn't handle a stepped-up trash collection effort. The six-county ODOT district office that includes Mahoning has been downsized the past five years from about 700 workers to 510. Litter collection also takes away from ODOT's drainage work, which means more water under the road and more potholes.
So, he persuaded the state to hire five more summer workers, typically college students, dedicated to collecting trash on I-680. That's the second prong of his strategy.
The last part: The third part involves a ready work force: Prisoners.
Inmates from the Ohio State Penitentiary camp have worked with ODOT in recent years, but have made only a small difference. "There's so much litter, they can't keep up," he said. One crew picked up 200 bags of garbage and 50 tires at one interchange this spring.
Instead, Miner has arranged with the Mahoning County Sheriff's Department to provide deputies and 12 to 24 misdemeanant jail inmates. The crews will start in the next week working solely on I-680 trash, twice a week.
County inmates have worked on the highway before, as well as downtown. The latest effort, however, is a more concentrated approach, said Maj. Michael Budd.
"One person throws out a piece of paper and you have a million pieces of paper. That's what Route 680 has become," he said. "We can actually make a difference here."
Miner has multiple reasons for fighting litter.
He lives in the area and so do six grandchildren. And, his bosses rate his job performance, in part, on how clean the highways are.
He is confident the three-part approach will send the message that litter is no longer an acceptable attitude, at least on I-680.
"It's up to everybody here to do their part to get rid of the reputation," he said. "I think it'll take off."