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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Between 1990 and 2001, some 43% of new and expanded firms
in Wisconsin located in communities within five miles of an
The Interstate system moves some 320 million tons of
freight each year, about 60% of the total freight moved
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
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.