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50th anniversary - 50 Interstate facts

Cover of the original dedication program for Interstate 94 in Kenosha and Racine Counties, Wisconsin, December 3, 1959

Dedication programs

Dedication program images are courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives, Series 2277.

U.S. Interstate history

  • In 1919, Dwight D. Eisenhower, then a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. army, traveled some 3,250 miles from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco as part of the Army's first transcontinental military convoy.
  • Due primarily to poor road conditions, Eisenhower's trip took two months at a speed of about 6 mph. After witnessing Germany's autobahn system in World War II, Eisenhower became convinced of the need to improve his country's roads through "broader ribbons across the land."
  • In 1923, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General John Pershing submitted a report to Congress offering possible routes for a nationwide system of express highways. Congress chose not to fund further study or construction.
  • In 1939, the Bureau of Public Roads submitted a report to Congress advocating construction of "inter-regional" highways connecting major cities that would meet the demands of national defense and increasing traffic. The outbreak of WW II caused delays.
  • A January 12, 1944 message from President Franklin Roosevelt to Congress further described the Interstate concept. The document contained a relief traffic map showing certain Interstate routes including the approximate I-90 and I-94 corridors in Wisconsin.
  • The Federal Highway Act of 1944 called upon states to designate a 40,000-mile national system of interstate highways.
  • In 1945, Wisconsin's State Highway Engineer E. L. Roettiger submitted tentative Interstate route designations including the current I-94 route between Hudson and Kenosha, plus the Highway 18 zone between Madison and Prairie du Chien.
  • The federal response was to delete the Madison to Prairie du Chien segment and substitute a Tomah to La Crosse segment. In subsequent years, other routes were proposed including:
    • Highway 51 from the present Interstate to Hurley; 
    • Highway 53 between Eau Claire and Superior; 
    • a Milwaukee to Green Bay route;
    • and an east-west loop between Green Bay and Eau Claire linking with I-94.
  • In 1953, the newly created Wisconsin Turnpike Commission considered a possible toll road turnpike.
  • In 1954, Baltimore and New York firms submitted engineering and traffic-revenue studies which concluded that a toll road between Hudson and Highway 41 (Highway 29 loop) would be "cost beneficial" for motorists and the state.
  • In a 1955 report, the Turnpike Commission determined toll roads were not feasible and that "we ought to cooperate with the federal plans for an Interstate System."
  • On June 29, 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act that authorized construction of a 41,000-mile "National System of Interstate and Defense Highways" to be completed within 15 years. Federal funds would cover 90% of construction costs with states providing 10%.
  • The federal act that would change the face of America was signed will little fanfare. President Eisenhower signed it in a room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D. C. where he was recovering from surgery.

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Wisconsin Interstate history / segment dedication programs

  • In 1956, the same year President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, Wisconsin started Interstate construction between Goerke's Corners (WIS 18) and County SS in Waukesha County.
  • In December 1956, federal officials denied Wisconsin's request for a route between Genoa City and Beloit, opting for Madison to Janesville instead.
  • In 1958, the first section of Interstate highway was completed in Wisconsin - a one-mile segment of I-94 near Johnson Creek in Jefferson County.
  • In March of 1958, the Turnpike Commission advocated a Milwaukee to Marinette route. Federal officials denied the request.
  • On September 4, 1958, a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrated completion of the seven-mile Goerke's Corners (WIS 18) to County SS segment of I-94 (131 KB).
  • Initially, Wisconsin was to have only two major Interstate routes, I-90 and I-94. However, the state eventually convinced the federal government to approve I-43 between Green Bay, Milwaukee and Beloit.
  • About 75% of Wisconsin's Interstate system was built in the decade between 1959 and 1969 including the east-west and north-south Milwaukee freeways (I-94) and the Milwaukee bypass (I-894).
  • By 1970, Wisconsin had completed its initial rural Interstate system at a time when only 70% of the country's system was complete.
  • I-43 between Cedar Grove and Green Bay was completed between 1970 and 1981. Later during the 1980's, I-43 was extended from Milwaukee to Beloit.
  • In 1981, the total cost for some 1,381 separate Interstate projects was $900 million.
  • In 1999, Wisconsin's fourth interstate highway, I-39, was designated between Portage and Wausau (also U.S. 51) and was eventually extended southerly along I-90/94).
  • In 2005, federal legislation authorized funding to Wisconsin to upgrade US 41 between Milwaukee and Green Bay to meet Interstate standards.

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Other Interstate facts

  • The nation's Interstate system began as a massive national defense project, but later evolved into a major economic development force that allowed people and commerce to flow efficiently throughout the country.
  • Today, the U.S. Interstate system covers some 46,775 miles and is considered the largest and most significant public works project the country has ever undertaken.
  • The federal government has invested some $120 billion in the nation's Interstate system. The total cost to construct Wisconsin's original Interstate highway system was approximately $1.5 billion (federal funds covered about $1.3 billion).
  • Wisconsin has some 743 miles of Interstate. While accounting for less than 1% of the state's 113,700 miles of total roadway, Interstates carry almost 18% of the state's vehicle miles each year.
  • Interstates remain among the safest highways to travel. Preliminary data shows that in 2005, of the 700 fatal crashes in Wisconsin, less than six percent (41) occurred along Interstate highways.
  • Along with enhancing public safety, our state and national Interstate highways play a major role in economic development:
    • In 2005, nearly 40% of Wisconsin's industrial parks were located within five miles of an Interstate highway.
    • Of the 26 major distribution centers in Wisconsin, 19 (73%) are located within five miles of an Interstate highway.
    • Between 1990 and 2001, some 43% of new and expanded firms in Wisconsin located in communities within five miles of an Interstate.
    • The Interstate system moves some 320 million tons of freight each year, about 60% of the total freight moved through Wisconsin.
  • Wisconsin's longest Interstate highway segment - I-94 from Hudson to Kenosha - covers some 334 miles.
  • I-90 is the nation's longest Interstate highway (3,021 miles) and passes through 12 states: Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts.
  • The shortest two-digit Interstate in the nation is the 12-mile I-73 between Emery and Greensboro, North Carolina.
  • Interstate highways serve all but five state capitals: Dover, Delaware; Jefferson City, Missouri; Carson City, Nevada; Pierre, South Dakota and Juneau, Alaska (Alaska, the largest U.S. state, has no Interstate highways).
  • There are many "local" Interstate routes funded through the Federal Highway  Act that lie entirely within a single state. Hawaii has three interstates - H1, H2, and H3 - which connect important military facilities on the island of Oahu.
  • Major Interstate routes are designated by one or two-digit numbers. East/west Interstate routes carry even numbers - the numbers increase from south to north.
  • North/south Interstate routes carry odd numbers - the numbers increase from west to east.
  • Three-digit Interstate highway numbers represent bypasses or spurs attached to a primary Interstate highway and carry the numbers of the adjacent "parent" Interstate (I-794 and I-894 in Milwaukee).
  • In general, Interstate bypass routes that connect to an Interstate at either end have an even first digit (I-894). Spur routes and city routes that may or may not connect to an Interstate highway at one end have an odd first digit (I-794).
  • Wisconsin pioneered the concept of numbering highways and was the first state to replace trail signs with numbers. A 1917 state law creating a State Trunk Highway System of up to 5,000 miles included a provision requiring uniform guide and warning signs.
  • The last 50 years have witnessed tremendous progress in how transportation projects are planned, designed and constructed. At the same time, tremendous progress has been made in soliciting public input and minimizing environmental impacts associated with transportation projects.

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Last modified: January 6, 2010

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