Back-Seat Driver

Some freeway sound walls are pretty ... really! Check these out

Art in unexpected places

Caltrans has been beautifying sound walls along Sacramento freeways to offer drivers a more pleasant commute.
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Caltrans has been beautifying sound walls along Sacramento freeways to offer drivers a more pleasant commute.

What’s the best-looking freeway sound wall in Sacramento?

Twenty-five years ago, that would have been a silly question. The answer, then: There’s no such thing. Sound walls used to be just gray or brown cinder block. Caltrans engineers called that the “penitentiary look,” and indeed it could make a commuter feel like they were marching through a prison yard.

More recently, though, Caltrans has been pushed by communities that want to dress up their image, and the state is responding by upping its wall aesthetics game.

You’re still not going to confuse freeway sound walls or retaining walls with great art, but some are actually pleasant to look at, and some even quietly tell a story.

James Williamson, a landscape architect for Caltrans who designs sound walls as part of his job, says his favorite locally is one on Highway 49 just this side of Grass Valley.

There’s a stonelike lower layer of concrete topped by vertical wood planks. It evokes the stone walls and barns you might see dotted on the hillsides. It’s what Caltrans likes to call “context sensitive.” In other words, it fits its community. Grass Valley’s telling you: “Hey, we’re hill folk, but darn it, we’re chic.”

There are two walls in Sacramento I like that fit that label. One is on the east side of the Capital City Freeway, just before the freeway launches upward over the American River. It’s a grayish wall, pretty bland, but it has some metal sculptures attached to it – silhouettes of flying geese and marshes. One clump of the marshes has a heron standing tall, its head peering over the top of the wall.

There’s an even better one on a Highway 50 retaining wall that curves along the eastbound onramp from Mather Field Road. The concrete on the lower section of the wall is stamped in the form of green reeds that grow along a river.

Rust-colored metal silhouettes of about four dozen geese rise above those reeds, all of them flying at about drivers’ eye views around the turn for a hundred yards or so. It’s as if you, the driver, are flying along with the flock. There’s one quirky little detail. One of the geese, the third one from the front of the line, has a white neck collar or band. It’s the only one with a collar.

I showed a photo of it to Bee environmental reporter Ryan Sabalow. He says wildlife researchers sometimes put tracking devices on geese to study migrations pattern. This one appears to be heading to the Folsom Outlets. Just my guess. Maybe Palladio. I’m not sure.

Commuters heading into downtown Sacramento on Interstate 5, in the sunken “boat section,” will notice interesting and slightly ominous art on the walls. The concrete is stamped with blue, green and yellow geometric shapes, some of them overlapping. They look like a burst of modern art, which makes sense since the Crocker Museum is perched just on the east side of the wall.

The ominous part is the series of thin blue bands that run horizontally along the top of the wall. I don’t know why they put that there, but it reminds me that the “boat section” is below the Sacramento River level in winter. The river is just a few yards west. One time, when the freeway’s water pumps failed, the entire boat section flooded. Right about up to that thin line.

Williamson of Caltrans designed a sound wall on Interstate 80 just east of the Highway 65 interchange that is quietly elegant. He was required to use cinder blocks, which he says is like working with Legos. He had three colors to work with, gray, brown, and a lighter dusty brown. He created a foothills and mountain feel, using the gray as the sky, and stepping the brown bricks up and down to create the undulating feel of the foothills. Toward the east end of the wall, the brown bricks overlap, creating the feeling of mountains behind other mountains.

Mark Dinger of Caltrans tells me one of his favorites is up by Yuba City, near plum orchards. It has tree silhouettes on it, with the treetops standing proud above the wall top.

The sound wall that we’ve heard the most comments about lately – and not in a good way – is the oversized wall along Capital City Freeway at the site of the new McKinley Village community. It’s 10 football fields long. Quite formidable.

The developer planted evergreen trees in front of it that eventually will grow and hide most of the wall. But the comments we hear are about how close the new homes are to the wall. It looks almost like you could reach out that upper floor window and touch it.

The 70,000-square-foot Bright Underbelly mural turns a drab freeway underpass into vibrant community art space. The project, by artists Sofia Lacin and Hennessy Christophel and project manger Tre Borden, will officially be unveiled Thursday, March

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