An episode of the hit TV sitcom “Seinfeld” titled “The Pothole” airs for the first time on this day in 1997; it includes a story line in which the character Kramer adopts a stretch of the fictional Arthur Burghardt Expressway through the real-life Adopt-a-Highway program.
The roots of the Adopt-a-Highway program date back to 1984, when James Evans, an engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, noticed litter blowing out of the back of a pickup truck he was driving behind in Tyler, Texas. Concerned about the growing cost to the government of keeping roadways clean, Evans soon began asking community groups to volunteer to pick up trash along sections of local highways they could “adopt.” Though Evans got no takers for his idea, Billy Black, the public information officer for the Tyler District of the Texas Department of Transportation, took up the cause and organized the first official Adopt-a-Highway program, which included training and equipment for volunteers. The first group to participate in the program was the Tyler Civitan Club, and on March 9, 1985, a sign was erected to indicate that the group had adopted a two-mile stretch along Texas’s Highway 69. Similar signs began popping up in the area as other groups volunteered to beautify their own stretches of highway. The program eventually spread to thousands of towns and cities across the U.S. and to such countries as Canada, Japan and New Zealand.
Businesses, schools and churches are among the main organizations to participate in the Adopt-a-Highway program (also known in some places as Sponsor-a-Highway). Over the years, however, some controversial groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, have tried to become involved—and thereby receive signs along highways acknowledging their effort. After the state of Missouri rejected a Ku Klux Klan group’s application to join the program, the white supremacist organization charged in court that its free-speech rights had been violated. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Missouri couldn’t prevent the KKK from participating in the Adopt-a-Highway program as long as the group’s members picked up litter.
As for Kramer (played by Michael Richards) on “Seinfeld,” his efforts to clean up the one-mile stretch of roadway he adopted because he was upset about failing highway infrastructure, quickly went awry. First, he repaints the highway, turning it from four lanes into two, which creates chaos among drivers. He then tries to change it back to two lanes and in the process spills paint thinner on the pavement. A mail truck driven by the character Newman (Wayne Knight) generates sparks that ignite with the paint thinner, causing his truck to catch fire.