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Updated: Thursday, 26 Jan 2012, 6:05 PM CST
Published : Friday, 13 Jan 2012, 11:55 AM CST
AUSTIN (KXAN) - In December of 2007, Texas Department of Transportation spokesperson Marcos Cooper wandered over a steep hillside above Loop 360 in West Austin. He marveled at a dozen or so cedar trees on the public right-of-way, all decked out in full holiday regalia by private citizens.
“This is the largest cluster of trees that I've seen in the years that I've worked at TxDOT,” Cooper said.
He chose his next words carefully.
“We don't want to be the grinch that stole Christmas,” Cooper said, “but obviously, we have to consider whether or not these decorations could become a hazard to drivers. There would be a point where we draw the line; we haven't gotten to that point yet.”
During the just-past holiday season, that dozen or so decorated trees ballooned into several dozen as people, often in the cover of darkness, but sometimes in broad daylight, wrapped garlands around the cedars and festooned them with everything from glass balls to fishing lures.
At the TxDOT regional headquarters, public information officers cringe. Faced with what is quite obviously an overwhelming desire on the part of some members of the public to add public holiday juice to the sides of streets and highways, the spokespeople and the higher-ups they represent hesitate to be too critical. Still, they fear the practice is a catastrophe waiting to happen.
“Even though it's fun to keep Austin weird, you put something on a tree like that and it can be a distraction,” said current assistant public information officer Chris Bishop.
“Let's say we have a nice wind come up and it blows garland off of a tree and you've got a 30-foot piece of it snapping in the wind and it distracts a driver at a critical time---not the safest idea as far as folks on the road.
“But it's hard to get them to stop. So what we tell them is, 'We'd rather you not do it, but if you're going to do it, secure it and then clean it up afterwards,'" Bishop said.
The cleanup issue is an equally serious concern at TxDOT.
“Every year we hear from people about the litter problem, especially in the last year or two,” Bishop said.
“We've had at least one person who was very upset about it: Wanted to immediately form a task force or a way to take care of this through 'Adopt-a-Highway.'”
The suggestion was to organize a volunteer program in which private citizens or organizations swoop down on problem areas after the holidays and pick up all the decorations left behind by people who never return to clean up their own mess.
But what happens if a car veers off the road and takes out one or more of those volunteers? And short of that, what happens if a volunteer slips on a rock or distracts drivers, causing a serious wreck on the roadway?
So, so far, the agency is moving slowly. That, however, is not solving the problem. Organized or not, volunteers are showing up to do the cleaning and they face the same dangers.
On a recent afternoon, Laura Cane and her two young daughters showed up on “Christmas Tree Hill," the slope over Loop 360 that hosts the largest concentration in town of decorated trees.
For Cane, the now six-year-old family tradition provides annual “teaching moments” for 7-year-old Kayla and 4-year-old Riley.
“It's a fun way for us to do something as a family,” said the mother, “and it's a community service project the kids can learn from. We just come out every year; we don't decorate a tree but we come out and clean up the trees. I feel like there's a lot of trash and every year it seems to get worse.”
All three were careful to work only on trees high up on the slope, far away from traffic, but at TxDOT, Bishop still worries. What if a child slipped on loose rocks and rolled down the hill toward traffic? What if they fell on broken glass ornaments littering the ground and received a serious cut?
“That's why we're not encouraging people to put the decorations out there in the first place,” said Bishop. “It would be a nightmare for everybody. You can imagine how people would feel if they saw something like that occur or saw the reports of something like that occur.”
Of course, should something horrible take place, the wheels in the TxDOT bureaucracy would immediately start turning much faster.
“Everybody reacts better to an incident, to something of an emergency,” Bishop acknowledged.
So far, though, that has not happened. So what should the department do now?
“It's so difficult to reel in that good feeling that people get by doing it,” said Bishop. “But we'd still prefer they not do it.
“We try to tell people, ‘Don't do it. But if you're going to do it, make it so it's not going to be a distraction and then, then let's clean it up.’”
Those who ignore the advice are putting the entire enterprise at risk.
“You're simply making work for other people,” Bishop said, “whether it be state employees or contractors that we have to clean up litter or other good-minded folks who want to go out there and keep things looking pristine and proper.
“You've got a glass ornament out there
or a plastic ornament; it's going to survive for a long time, mixing with the soil.
“You have somebody who walks through the area, now you've got something to cut them on. Nobody wants that; nobody needs that.
“It's a wonderful feeling; it's a wonderful sentiment; but let's put it where it needs to be and not take a chance on littering the state right-of-way.”
Over the past few days, Christmas Tree Hill has been scrubbed, but trees on the other side of the highway, as well as on many other roads all over the area, remain baubled and bangled.
We’re almost halfway through January. Perhaps it’s time for those who did the decorating to undo it, before some other well-meaning citizen gets hurt, or worse.
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