Those drab gray walls found along many Bay Area freeways are getting much more interesting.

Eager to win beauty points with motorists, Bay Area transportation agencies and Caltrans have stepped up efforts in the recent years to adorn new freeway walls with artistic patterns, accents and sculpted scenes of local geography.

In Mountain View, it resulted in artful egrets and San Francisco Bay marsh scenes on walls along Highway 101. Antioch has Delta wetlands depicted along Highway 4, and Livermore has grapes and vines on a Highway 84 overpass.

In Vallejo you can find sailboats decorating a retaining wall north of the Carquinez Bridge. And when the $417 million Caldecott Tunnel fourth bore opened, it featured six concrete architectural medallions of local landmarks like Mount Diablo and wild deer.

A detail of a sculpted San Francisco Bay shoreline scene with an upside down egret by Denver artist Carolyn Braaksma on a freeway wall near intersection of
A detail of a sculpted San Francisco Bay shoreline scene with an upside down egret by Denver artist Carolyn Braaksma on a freeway wall near intersection of Highways 101 and 85 in Mountain View, on Friday, Jan. 10, 2014. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)

They are "icing on the cake of some transportation projects that will be with us for a very long time," said Randy Iwasaki, a former Caltrans director and now executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority. "Remember when you were a kid and you had a birthday cake? It was often the icing you remembered years later."

The newest art appeared in Danville in late October when 96 oak leaves were built into a concrete retaining wall along southbound Interstate 680. Concrete was poured in molds to cast the leaves.

"We think the oak leaves provide a subtle visual accent and underscore what the town values," said Tai Williams, Danville's community development director. A historic oak tree, she noted, is the town logo used on town street signs, letterhead, and its website.


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Freeway art isn't new, but has gotten a boost because of new freeway projects and walls funded in part by the federal economic stimulus act of 2009 and California's Proposition 1B bond measure in 2006.

Iwasaki said freeway art also has been helped by county congestion management agencies like his ponying up local sales tax money to help pay for projects. And they want their money to give drivers something interesting to look at.

Plus, including wall art has a practical payoff. It beautifies freeways in developed areas where there is limited space or money to install and maintain landscaping, planners say.

Not everyone is impressed with the freeway art, though. Yvonne Gilchrist of Danville said: "A concrete wall is a concrete wall and you can't change that with a few leaves."

But Danville resident Denny Hintz likes the leaves, and thinks they improve the drive. "I don't see how someone can call them a waste," he said. "I think they add beauty."

Planners say freeway art is a minor cost.

Architectural medallions adorning the portals to the Caldecott Tunnel fourth bore cost about $70,000 of the $417 million project cost, according to Caltrans. The oak leaves on I-680 in Danville cost $60,000 out of a budget of $32 million for new auxiliary lanes.

Adding art to a project is no last-minute decision.

Aware that the merging lane project was coming, Danville town officials years ago made their wishes known to Caltrans and the county transportation authority.

While Caltrans must approve freeway art, the state highway agency says it encourages local agencies and residents to present their own ideas.

"We want the locals to buy in," said Caltrans spokesman Bob Haus. "We want to make sure there is consensus in the community, and not overwhelming opposition."

The plan for the sailboats just north of the Carquinez Bridge came from a Caltrans landscape architect, and was vetted by local residents.

The design for the Caldecott Tunnel fourth bore medallions came from six East Bay students who won a Caltrans art competition.

The Danville oak leaves were simple enough that no outside artist was needed, but the wetland scenes along 101 in Mountain View were designed by Denver artist Carolyn Braaksma.

Braaksma has designed more than 17 public art projects, including walls on Interstate 25 near Denver and on the Pima Freeway in Arizona.

She said a Mountain View art advisory panel played a big role in shaping her project there that shows wetland birds and plants.

"These projects become landmarks for an area," Braaksma said. "I've done lizards for Scottsdale, Ariz., and buffaloes and swallows for Denver. People want to something special about their area."

Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff.