Highways get a touch of Martha Stewart

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When crumbling Highway 40 linking St. Louis with its booming western suburbs is finally rebuilt, it will look more like it was put together by Martha Stewart than someone in a grader and a hydraulic excavator.

Sure, there will be the usual ribbon of asphalt. But there may also be color-coordinated overpasses, architect-designed sound walls, and enough shrubbery to make the roadway look like Cypress Gardens.

Welcome to the new world of designer highways.

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Flush with a new aesthetic sense and money from a booming economy, highway planners across the country are creating roadways that are part transportation corridor, part park, and part Ralph Lauren.

To a certain extent, the movement mirrors the nostalgia and design renaissance that is playing itself out in such things as throwback ballparks and refurbished main streets. But, with highways, engineers are adding their own flourishes. For instance:

*In New York, plans to turn the dilapidated West Side Highway into a super freeway were shelved in favor of a tree-lined boulevard with replicas of early 20th-century streetlamps and other quaint touches.

*In Kansas City, the new Bruce R. Watkins Memorial Highway, cutting through the heart of the city, was designed to dovetail with the city's master plan - from 1893. Its bridges will be decorated with ornamental guard railings, trellis fences, and antique lamps that provide a link to old neighborhoods.

*In Boston, bridges over the Massachusetts Turnpike - including the edges of girders - are being painted in Van Gogh-like hues.

"There's no question this is a growing initiative nationally," says Tom Warne, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation and president of a national highway organization. "There's a growing expectation on the part of the public that transportation facilities should not only function efficiently and safely - which has been the emphasis for the past 50 years - but also reflect well on the community...."

Roots of the new aesthetic

The rush to complete the Interstate Highway System, along with decades of tight federal budgets, nudged aside aesthetic considerations right through the 1980s.

That began to change in 1991 with passage of federal legislation that marked the end of the Interstate Highway System's construction phase. For the first time, federal money was earmarked for transportation "enhancements." To many, it was a watershed that caused highway engineers to stop thinking about quantity and start thinking about quality.

But the real turning point may have been a 1995 bill that sought to fold existing highways into the Interstate system, expanding it by four times.

State Departments of Transportation (DOTs) and others feared the imposition of cookie-cutter design standards. They fought for language that emphasized scenic and aesthetic elements, as well as community and environmental considerations - and won.

A number of transportation leaders at the state level decided to put the language of the 1995 law into practice. By most accounts, the resulting 1998 workshop, "Thinking Beyond the Pavement," solidified the new design movement.

"The context-sensitive design movement was created there," says Sally Oldham, a transportation consultant, using the new buzzword for the greater emphasis on aesthetics, environmental factors, preservation considerations, and community concerns in road design.

Although many see the new asphalt aesthetic sense as a reaction to the "build first, plan later" mentality of the boom 1960s and '70s, not everyone agrees with it. In an era of worsening congestion in cities, some critics worry about cost: They don't want to trade more lanes for granite curbs and gargoyles on overpasses. Others are concerned that safety might be compromised for beauty.

But advocates contend the public can have it all: more artistic designs that are affordable and safe. In Ohio, guidelines require that aesthetic add-ons total less than 1 percent of the cost of a project, and in many cases there is no added expense.

For instance, the state has chosen to plant sunflowers along some highways instead of traditional landscaping, and it is painting bridges in a variety of colors besides standard Key-lime-pie green.

Utah is rapidly completing a $1.5 billion renovation of Interstate 15 through downtown Salt Lake City, including spending more than $20 million on aesthetic considerations.

"As I go around to community groups and talk about that, it doesn't even phase people," says Mr. Warne. "They're glad. They want the roads to look nice. In fact, people say to me, make the roads like Arizona's," where earth tone sound walls and a native-American art motif prevail.

Designer sound walls

Accordingly, bridges and sound walls along I-15 were constructed with a variety of architectural treatments, including a Wasatch mountain design on the walls.

Not all state DOTs are as aesthetically minded as Warne and his staff. "The predominant approach in many DOTs is just to be concerned about pavement and safety," says Ms. Oldham.

Warne acknowledges as much but says the evolution is well under way. "When you build a project through a small town in rural Utah, the best thing from our perspective, frankly, is concrete pavement," he says. "It lasts forever here. But if you put concrete in, you change the nature of the town. It just looks different. It's no longer a quaint town with historic buildings. So we don't use it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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