If you drive along the freeways of Southern California--and most of us do so regularly--you can't help but notice growing mounds of garbage covering many onramps and offramps, on the embankments, and debris even spilling onto lanes of speeding traffic.
The NBC4 I-Team has been documenting increasing mountains of trash on the 101, 10, and 170 freeways for two years, and has noticed the filth has gotten considerably worse during the pandemic.
"It's depressing," says Deacon John Henyard of the First Southern Baptist Church in Hollywood, which looks out on the northbound 101 Freeway exit at Sunset Boulevard, which is covered with tons of garbage.
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"I'm looking at a landfill. That's what I see when I look across the street at the freeway, a landfill," Deacon Henyard told the I-Team.
"I'll be honest, I think we can do a better job," said Tony Tavares, director of Caltrans for Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
It's Caltrans' job to pick up garbage and keep the freeways clean.
Caltrans blames the worsening garbage problem on our freeways partly on the pandemic.
"We had a period of time at the beginning of the pandemic where we were unable to pick up trash... so we got behind the eight ball," Tavares told NBC4.
But Caltrans records obtained by the I-Team show the agency stopped picking up trash on key areas of LA's freeways long before the pandemic began. For example, a huge area of uncollected trash under the 10 Freeway near LA's Fashion District hasn't had a clean up by Caltrans since 2018. And the mess on the 101 Freeway offramp near Deacon Henyard's church hasn't been cleaned up since March 2019--a full year before the pandemic.
"It is embarrassing and we're upset by the fact that the trash is there," said Caltrans Director Tavares.
Caltrans says another complicating factor is that during the pandemic the agency decided not to move homeless encampments along the freeways--citing guidance from the CDC--so they can remove the mounds of trash.
"We don't want to disperse these people into the general population, potentially expose them or others to COVID-19," Tavares said.
Caltrans says it's now bringing in crews on the weekends on overtime to clean up trash on the highways.
Deacon Henyard and other members of the public tell NBC4 they've complained to Caltrans repeatedly to come pick up trash and got no response.
"I apologize if nothing has been done, and I apologize if we haven’t responded," said Caltrans' Tavares.