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  • Megan Kaun

The True Costs of Highway Spraying

...and the true $$ savings of pesticide-free highways

Pesticides, especially those applied to highways using spray trucks impact us all. Few of us can avoid these major road thoroughfares. This is especially true for those who rely on public transportation and our under-housed neighbors (those without the protection of a house or car). This video taken on Highway 12 in Sonoma County demonstrates one of the true costs of managing roads with chemicals; costs that are never taken into account when an agency decides to "save money" by spraying weeds.

CA Assembly Bill 99 would be an important step toward reducing unnecessary pesticide use and its associated costs. We have all borne the costs of Caltrans’ heavy reliance on pesticides, costs that are never included in a state budget. Yes, there are extensive costs to human health and the environment, but there are also the costs of accidental exposure (Caltrans sprays during rush hour and on weekends with documented exposure to motorists and bicyclists), and there are the costs of property damage (Caltrans sprays past property lines, damaging property and crops, jeopardizing organic certifications). There are community members living along state highways with alarming levels of glyphosate in their bodies, and parents who are scared to open their windows in the spring because Caltrans’ spraying increases their kid’s asthma and rashes. Caltrans has not historically taken responsibility for these costs. Local cities and counties have found ways to reduce or eliminate pesticide use on roads but it seems moot when the Caltrans spray trucks come around.

This video exemplifies why it is so important for Caltrans to be more cautious about managing roads with chemicals. This quiet residential neighborhood is surrounded by state highways where RoundUp/glyphosate is sprayed. A chain link fence as the only barrier to entry. Why should this community bare the brunt of our state's "cheap" highway maintenance program?

Caltrans estimated that a 80% reduction in pesticide use was possible in 1992. Caltrans spent over $2M in pesticide in 2022. It is clear why the main opposition to AB99 is comeing from the chemical industry.

The continued use of pesticides also keeps us away from the potential benefits of ecosystem services that a non-chemical warfare paradigm for road management could realize. For example, the Florida Department of Transportation has done extensive testing of what they call “pollinator highways” that keep desirable vegetation on roadsides to minimize costs. Pollinator highways reduce maintenance costs by 30% while increasing ecosystem services by $500M annually. This includes crop pollination, cleaning air and water, stopping invasive species, reducing erosion, and combating climate change.

Perhaps the title of this article should have been "the true savings of pesticide-free highways"!

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