Marin and Highway 101

Am I overreacting or do others feel the same? To me, the roadsides of the 101 freeway in this county are an eyesore. When I drive even a small portion of Marin’s 28 miles of 101, I see stands of green and yellow fennel weeds, strips of plastic sheathing, crunched-up orange traffic cones, large dead branches, and just plain junk.

One person who agrees with me is Marilyn Kessler, a 40-year resident of Marin and co-publisher of The Ark, weekly newspaper serving the Tiburon Peninsula. “I travel to Europe and my home state of Missouri and hardly see any highway litter,” she says. “But in Marin, one of America’s wealthiest counties, it’s shocking it’s so bad.” When Kessler first returns from where roadsides are mowed and picked up, the local scene is especially irksome. “But two weeks go by and I get used to it.”

Are you used to it? If so, heading south, notice the stretch of 101 in front of Corte Madera’s Marin Joe’s. It always looks bad. Heading north, ditto for the landscaping fronting the Strawberry Village shopping center. Another sore sight is the Central San Rafael exit, where weeds constantly collect litter. The recently expanded Blithedale Avenue/Tiburon Boulevard off-ramp can also use some maintenance. With minimal effort—clearing dead branches, removing invasive weeds— the entire interchange, with its stately trees and gentle slopes, could be made park-like. “Instead,” says one Marin resident who requested anonymity, “it’s dump-like.”

I’ve met several times with the Caltrans personnel responsible for maintaining these areas, once traveling with them from the Golden Gate Bridge (both the entrance and exit were cluttered with weeds and litter) to north of Novato (the roadsides looked rather respectable). My conclusion: considering its budgetary restraints, Caltrans is doing the best it can. “At Caltrans’s Manzanita Station,” says District 4 Maintenance Superintendent Trent Manning (who’s based in Napa), “we have just five men to cover the 100 miles of state highways in Marin.”

Adding to the unfortunate situation, the Adopt-A-Highway program in Marin is somewhat ineffective. First, says District Coordinator Arnold Joe, only 58 percent 56 miles of county roadsides (counting both sides) are considered safe by Caltrans for volunteers to work on. “Many of the shoulders are just too narrow,” he says. “The liability is too great.”

Still, with Marin’s can-do volunteer spirit, that leaves almost 17 miles on each side of 101 that could look so much better than they currently do. Here’s the problem: many of those Adopt-A-Highway signs are dated. Example: a sign in central San Rafael claims the “Marin Summer Music Festival” is picking up litter along a one-mile stretch of 101. The problem: that group is nowhere to be found—it’s not in the phone book, nor on the Internet and Marin’s Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership has no record of them.

Another problem exists at the unsightly Blithedale/Tiburon interchange, where an Adopt-A-Highway sign indicates Mill Valley’s Peace Lutheran Church is volunteering to pick up litter. “I’ve been trying to get Caltrans to take that sign down for years,” Pastor Ricky Adams told me last week. “The group that picked up litter left our church in 2001.”

I called four other Adopt-A-Highway groups inquiring as to their volunteering efforts—and got two calls back. One was from architect Colleen Mahoney whose sign is north of Novato. “We’ve been out on the freeway several times a year for the last dozen years,” Mahoney says, “Over our two-mile stretch, we usually collect 30 bags of trash.” The other response came from McInnis Golf Park’s Eric Hansen, who says his group has picked up in the past—“but lately, we’ve been a bit lazy.”

Meanwhile, weeds grow and trash collects. Making matters even more frustrating, “there are 11 groups waiting to volunteer in Marin,” assistant Adopt-A-Highway coordinator Rebecca Strouse told me last week, “but we don’t have openings for them.” Welcome to the bureaucracy of Caltrans. When I shared my research, Strouse assured me she’d look into it.

Didn’t Will Rogers once say, “If a city’s streets are a mess, one only wonders what else is amiss?” As far as Marin’s litter and weed-strewn 101 freeway goes, the only hope could be a Marin-Caltrans partnership of volunteerism. And to be sure, it will be hard work. If you’d like to help, please e-mail me your comments and commitments. I know the world has greater problems; however, this is a place to start. That’s my point of view. What’s yours?

E-mail jwood@marinmagazine.com.