Pennsylvania highway officials have quietly let lapse a sponsor-a-highway roadside cleaning program that was saving the state $300,000 a year.

Under the program, businesses paid monthly fees to a private cleaning company in exchange for roadside advertising signs. The private firm, Adopt A Highway Maintenance Corp., of Santa Ana, Calif., hired crews to clean the sponsored sections of the roadside.

The state's seven-year contract with Adopt A Highway expired in March. Since then, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation crews have filled in to clean the sponsored sections, PennDot spokesman Charles Metzger said.

As a result, PennDot is no longer getting the $25,000-a-month savings it had been enjoying, Metzger said.

"Right now, the program is on hold. But it's a good program, and we want to continue it," Metzger said. He said the Department of General Services was to issue a request for bids from cleaning companies to reinstate the program, but had not yet done so.

In Southeastern Pennsylvania, highway cleaning sponsors include automobile dealers, jewelers, strip clubs, motels, universities, and a hospital. The organizations have 86 sponsor-a-highway advertising signs along I-95, the Schuylkill Expressway, I-476, I-676, and other area highways.

The companies typically pay about $300 a month for each sign, which displays a corporate logo, but big advertisers such as Gary Barbera's auto dealerships and Club Risque strip clubs negotiate volume discounts, said Richard Ebeling, manager of highway-beautification programs for PennDot.

Jason Stern, president of Adopt A Highway Maintenance Corp., said the expiration of the Pennsylvania contract had forced him to lay off the five roadside cleaners his company had employed in the Philadelphia area.

"I haven't heard the state say anything about it. I think they're embarrassed by it - they should be," Stern said. "I've never had a program expire before."

A separate PennDot program allows organizations and companies to "adopt" a stretch of highway and enlist volunteers to clean it four times a year. That program, which is limited to less busy, less dangerous roadways, continues without interruption, Ebeling said.

And Pennsylvania continues to use inmates from the 26 state prisons to clean selected roadsides. The prisoners are paid 50 cents an hour; in fiscal 2008, the state paid $75,000 for prison labor to clean roadsides.

PennDot's budget for cleaning roadsides is $11.5 million a year, Ebeling said.

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.