Investigation: Fresno highway cleanup behind schedule, maintenance money in short supply

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The Central Valley's ugly and potentially dangerous highway landscaping is getting a makeover. (KFSN)

The Central Valley's ugly and potentially dangerous highway landscaping is getting a makeover. But the long term forecast doesn't call for much improvement.

At 60 miles per hour, the change comes quickly as you drive on Highway 168. Caltrans crews just finished maintenance near the Shields Ave. southbound onramp Wednesday. A few hundred yards further on, dry brush and weeds crowd the landscape

State crews started urgent cleanups in early August after a series of fires along Fresno area highways, but they won't make their initial goal of finishing within 30 to 45 days.

"It's a moving target to be honest with you," said Caltrans spokesman Cory Burkarth. "We spent a lot more time on Highway 41 than we initially anticipated. A lot more work took place."

Caltrans officials say the agency puts a high priority on safety and not so much on beauty. But they acknowledge the Fresno area is lacking in the latter, and change could be tough to achieve.

An Action News public records request revealed District 6 got about $11 million for what's called minor highway maintenance -- like landscaping, graffiti removal and litter pickup. That's seventh most out of the 12 Caltrans districts, even though we have more state highway miles than any other district.

Without new orders from the state legislature, the distribution of money isn't likely to change much.

"On an annual basis, at the maintenance level, funding is generally historic," Burkarth said. "What'd you get last year? What'd you spend last year?"

And the Fresno area has its own unique problems. District 6 spent $83,000 last year just to clear out homeless encampments and fix fences. It also spent millions to replace copper wire stolen from highway light fixtures.

"We have maintenance plans in place," Burkarth said. "However, incidents that happen throughout the day divert the attention, divert the manpower, divert the resources."

Caltrans also says participation in local Adopt-a-Highway volunteer programs is low, compared to some other districts.

But they say the "Keep Bakersfield Beautiful" program is working in the southern part of the district. So with a few more folks like the Niner Empire watching over our highways (they've adopted Highway 99 near Ashlan), the scenery could start looking a lot better.

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