Interstate 405, while not the homeliest of freeways, is unlikely to win many beauty contests, either. But those planning its future want...

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Interstate 405, while not the homeliest of freeways, is unlikely to win many beauty contests, either. But those planning its future want to make it a contender, a blend of form and function to which roads around the state can aspire.

Conceptual sketches of a widening project along the Kirkland segment of the interstate’s 30-mile path from Tukwila to Bothell eschew the shades of gray common to most Washington highways in favor of greens, warm browns and tans.

Graceful green railings and light standards line a sandstone-colored overpass, where pedestrians stroll along wide sidewalks painted in alternating rectangles of rich brown and beige. The same colors are used in the supports beneath, which feature a streamlined design. Maple trees line the freeway in a series of buff-colored planter boxes in front of textured sound walls.

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“I think there’s something about human beings; we’re not meant to live on concrete and look at the world as being gray,” said Kathy Feek, chair of the Kirkland Cultural Council and part of a citizens committee that’s been brainstorming with the state since last spring about I-405’s future appearance. “I think when you do things to the environment you do things to change the experience of people.”

Working with the public, along with artists, engineers and landscapers, is part of a concept gaining steam in transportation circles. It’s called Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS), a philosophy of working with communities to design highways, bridges and other structures that enhance or blend with their surroundings — and to build them with minimal disruption to people and the environment. That can mean painting concrete in desert hues, sending a highway underground to avoid disrupting a downtown, or realigning a road to hug a river’s banks.

Prompted by striking examples in Arizona, Texas and Pennsylvania, the Federal Highway Administration in 2002 began urging transportation departments around the country to incorporate CSS into their planning. The I-405 widening project is among the first to fully incorporate the philosophy in Washington state.

Other examples include I-90’s Sunset Interchange, which opened in 2003 after much coordination with the public as to its color scheme, the leaf pattern created along its structural walls and other efforts to maintain the corridor’s abundance of scenery.

Governments around the country are realizing they can save time and money by involving those affected by road projects early in the design process, said Doug Mann, head of the I-405 project’s CSS team and a national CSS consultant.

“These types of projects can enhance communities and cities, or these projects can destroy communities and cities,” Mann said. “Whatever happens now is going to influence a generation of Washingtonians in how they move up and down that [I-405] corridor, how they access things.”

Mann points to Texas, where plans to double-deck Dallas’ congested North Central Expressway initially outraged citizens. The project eventually was reconfigured with community involvement during the 1990s and now is widely lauded for its design — complete with planter boxes, textured concrete sound walls, soaring columns and other artistic touches.

Done well, good design can boost property values and encourage businesses to stay in a region, Mann said.

Arizona highways feature murals and overpass railings inspired by native art. In one of its most visible efforts to appease citizens, the state tunneled Interstate 10 beneath downtown Phoenix and built a 30-acre park on top.

Such efforts can add to the cost of a project, but generally the aesthetic touches can be achieved for the same budget and sometimes can result in significant savings, said Azim Sheikh-Tahari, regional budget administrator for highway construction.

Incorporating a community’s desires into a project helps prevent opposition and lawsuits, which can delay a road project or force it into redesign, he said. A year’s delay can boost a budget by 5 to 7 percent from steel and concrete price increases alone, and there’s always a risk the state might have to grapple with new regulations passed in the meantime, he said.

In the case of the Sunset Interchange, the state likely saved several hundred thousand dollars by adding touches of nature to its design rather than buying land off-site to ease the visual impact of the concrete, he said.

“It’s not just about being pretty. If you’re going to widen the highway to seven or eight lanes and you want pedestrians to cross it safely, you have to accommodate that. You have to be sensitive,” Sheikh-Tahari said.

Many aesthetic elements involve tasks that would have been done anyhow, said I-405 project manager Craig Stone. The state already seals concrete, but would seal it in shades other than gray. Swimming salmon and other designs are easily added to concrete forms that must be custom built, and contractors already are on the hook for landscaping. And the state is partnering with cities, including Kirkland, to cover the cost of long-term maintenance.

Stone said his team is developing design elements that will result in a consistent theme along the interstate.

For example, each major hub would feature a signature tree species as part of its landscaping. Hazelnuts would be a primary element in Tukwila, which means hazelnut in the language of the Duwamish Tribe. Sequoia would loom along the segment in Bellevue, with red cedar in Renton. Overpasses would feature similar color schemes and architecture.

The Kirkland widening project, between Highways 522 and 520, is set to begin later this year. It is the first of three “nickel projects” — so named because they are funded by a 5-cent increase in the state’s gas tax — scheduled along I-405, with Bellevue and Renton to follow.

Feek, for one, is thrilled at the prospect of bringing more touches of art and color into the lives of commuters and travelers. “If you are someone who travels in a commuter lifestyle every day, the draining effects of that kind of experience is just wearing you down,” she said.

Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618 or kgaudette@seattletimes.com