Adopt a Highway

Adopt a Highway: A billboard on I-91 near Hartford. (Photo courtesy / 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.