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Responsibility for litter cleanup on Texas highways not always clear

Highway trash

Who to call when you need rubbish removed from the roadways
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Who to call when you need rubbish removed from the roadways

Tim Welch was driving on Loop 820 on a recent morning when he was cut off by another vehicle and had to swerve out of the way.

He veered onto the shoulder where, as luck would have it, a large cooler that apparently had fallen out of someone’s truck was resting on the pavement.

“I hit the cooler with my vehicle. It was like a field-goal kick,” Welch said. “It went up and over [the overpass] and down about 30 feet. I was concerned that if it hit the frontage road [below] it was going to go through someone’s windshield.”

Luckily, no one was hurt. But since that incident and others, Welch, a civil engineer, has taken it upon himself to patrol the Loop 820/Texas 121/183 corridor — the North Tarrant Express — looking for dirt, debris and litter piling up. He drives the corridor almost daily between his North Richland Hills home and his Hurst office.

It’s not always clear who’s supposed to keep area highways, shoulders, gutters and roadsides clear of litter, sand, discarded furniture, lost belongings and other debris. Welch, a North Richland Hills city councilman, said he sometimes calls city administrators for help getting a responsible party out for a trash pickup.

They don’t always get a quick and simple answer.

I hit the cooler with my vehicle. It was like a field-goal kick.

Tim Welch, North Richland Hills motorist and City Council member

As the North Tarrant Express project enters its second full year of operation, Welch said that there has been confusion at times about whether a government agency — in this case, the Texas Department of Transportation — or the private-sector manager of the highway, NTE Mobility Partners, should send a crew out.

“I actually called the city manager once, and said, ‘Hey, they’ve got a mattress that has been sitting out here a week. Can you get hold of TxDOT or NTE and find out what they can do to get it removed?’ ” he said. “It went on for almost five weeks.”

Never-ending battle

In fairness to state agencies and private-sector contractors, the task of keeping Texas highways clear of trash and other potential hazards is a never-ending battle. And, in the case of the $2.5 billion North Tarrant Express project, the responsibility for disposing of refuse is one of many small examples of how public and private partners are trying to manage transportation projects as a team.

Questions about who is responsible for which duties on the roads often require both sides to review their inches-thick contracts with each other, to remind themselves who agreed to do what.

Long-term contract

NTE Mobility Partners, which is headed by the U.S. arm of the Spain-based contractor Cintra, won the contract to modernize the Loop 820/Texas 121/1283 corridor, rebuilding the main lanes and adding new frontage roads and ramps. In exchange, the company gets to keep most of the proceeds from the two new toll lanes, which were built in the corridor’s median, through March 2061.

Existing lanes were left nontoll.

“Over the past year since the opening of the NTE corridor, we are continually reviewing and revising our procedures depending on the season, behavior of the motorists and the needs that arise, and trash pick-up is one of those activities,” said NTE Mobility Partners spokesman Robert Hinkle.

NTE Mobility Partners deploys crews in pickups that retrieve litter and use leaf-blowers to get sand off roads and shoulders. NTE’s contract requires only that the crews maintain the property from the middle of the roadway to the outside curb of the highway or frontage road.

But crews also take it upon themselves to also clean the unpaved right-of-way outside the curb “so that we can maintain some consistency in the overall maintenance,” Hinkle said. That means often cleaning litter from grassy roadsides, sound walls and embankments.

But NTE doesn’t cover all the highway right-of-way within its boundaries. For example, signs were recently installed at the enormous interchange near North East Mall where Loop 820 and Texas 121/183 come together. The small white signs with black lettering read “End NTEMP Maintenance,” a message that is probably meaningless or confusing to most of the traveling public.

But it lets work crews know that the responsibility for mowing and cleaning the turf below the interchange is not that of NTE Mobility Partners, but of TxDOT.

“TxDOT has responsibility for the Interchange and NTEMP has responsibility for the general-purpose and managed lanes,” Mike Curtis, North Richland Hills managing director of development services, said in an email. “They have signs now showing the areas that NTEMP is responsible for.”

More than $1.8 million annually is spent by the Texas Department of Transportation keeping roadways clean, including funds for sweeping, litter and debris removal.

Other roads

Northeast Tarrant County isn’t the only place where residents have complained about road litter and debris.

Trash is also a problem along Interstate 30 near the West Rosedale Street ramp, although the situation has improved in recent months, said Mike Danella, former neighborhood association president for Mistletoe Heights west of downtown Fort Worth.

In July, Danella said in an email that “the amount of litter, debris, and trash along the West Freeway from downtown west to say Green Oaks Boulevard is appalling. I have written to them two times in the past few months and nothing has changed. The amount of trash, sediment, old tires, and general litter has accumulated to create a most unappealing sight.”

But this week Danella provided an update, saying residents of the neighborhood repeatedly called and emailed city and Transportation Department officials and eventually got results.

“The only reason the recent cleanup was done was the constant emailing and calling from residents that prompted TxDOT and the city to take action,” he said. “These areas really need to be on a regular cleanup schedule or they will end up in the deplorable conditions that prompted this cleanup campaign in the first place.”

The state transportation department is actually quite aggressive in patrolling highways for litter and debris, said spokesman Val Lopez.

The agency contracts with TIBH Industries, a nonprofit organization that helps find jobs for people with disabilities, for litter pickup, Lopez said. That contract costs about $885,000 in the current fiscal year.

For sweeping and debris removal, the agency also contracts with several private-sector companies, he said. That budget item amounts to $942,000 this year, he said.

That money covers roads in Tarrant County, and roads in populated areas of adjacent counties.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson

Who to call

Motorists who see litter, sand, tall grass or potentially hazardous debris have several options for seeking help:

  • Call 911 if an object that could potentially cause a wreck is lying in a freeway or toll lane. This can include pieces of furniture, wheels, ladders, discarded wood, tools or pipes. The 911 call-taker can send a police officer or courtesy patrol employee out to remove the item from traffic.
  • For items littering the roadside — for example, an old chair that has fallen off a pickup and come to rest on a shoulder, but not actually in a lane — call the Texas Department of Transportation’s main Fort Worth number, 817-370-6500. A call-taker will route the call to the agency’s maintenance office.
  • Another option is to visit www.txdot.gov online and click on “Contact Us” in the upper right of the home page. At the top of the page, under “Contact reason,” select “road debris/litter/dead animal” and type a short message.
  • Motorists on the North Tarrant Express — the 13-mile corridor of Loop 820/Texas 121/183 in Northeast Tarrant County — may also call visit www.ntetexpress.com and send a complaint by email, or call 877-525-3979.
  • After complaining about a problem, if the matter isn’t addressed to your satisfaction, one course of action is to discuss the situation with a local city council member, county commissioner or state lawmaker. They can often fix problems with a phone call.
  • Finally, if you see someone tossing litter out of a car, you can always contact the transportation department’s world-famous Don’t Mess With Texas campaign. If it’s safe to do so, jot down the offender’s license plate number, then visit www.dontmeswithtexas.org and report the litterer. The agency doesn’t have authority to issue a littering fine by mail, but will send the offender a complimentary trash bag and a letter asking them to refrain from trashing the state’s roads.
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