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Interstate Highway System

Planning the Interstate

Although the interstate highway system was not completed nationwide until the 1970s, it had been in the planning stages for nearly half a century.  In 1923 General John J. Pershing, Army Chief of Staff, submitted a report to Congress offering possible routes for a nationwide system of express highways.  Although Congress did not proceed with funds for further study or construction, the report sparked interest in the interstate highway system.

Interest in the interstate system was renewed in 1939, when the Bureau of Public Roads submitted a report to Congress advocating the construction of a special system of direct interregional highways.  The system included necessary connections through and around cities that would meet the requirements of the national defense in time of war, as well as the increasing demands of traffic.  World War II caused a delay in the project and the diversion of tax money into military rearmament.


Moving boulders to construct I-94
in Waukesha County, October 1959.
Courtesy of Wisconsin
Historical Society Archives.

Interest in the 1939 report prompted Congress to commission another study in 1943, authorized to investigate national superhighway needs.  The Commissioner of Public Roads was assigned to survey the need for a system of express highways, the number of such highways needed, the approximate routes they should follow, and the approximate construction costs.  The 1944 report, entitled "Interregional Highways," led Congress to authorize the National System of Interstate Highways as part of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 included three important steps leading to the development of an interstate highway network.  The act authorized the first specific funds for federal aid in urban areas.  It provided for the selection of a federal aid secondary system (the farm-to-market roads) and it called upon the states and the Public Roads Administration to designate a national system of interstate highways, not to exceed 40,000 miles connecting state capitals, principal metropolitan areas, cities, and industrial centers by direct routes.  By 1947, the route selection was completed and reported to Congress, as the "National System of Interstate Highways."  The proposed network of roads crossed each state and carried cross-country traffic north-south and east-west.

In 1945 the Wisconsin State Highway Engineer submitted tentative route designations for approval and inclusion in the interstate system.  The routes included the current I-94 route in the southwest portion of the state, the USH 18 route between Madison and Prairie du Chien, the route of USH 51 from the present interstate north to Hurley, the USH 53 route between Eau Claire and Superior, a route between Milwaukee and Green Bay, and an east-west loop between Green Bay and Eau Claire.  Washington first responded by substituting Tomah - LaCrosse for the Madison - Prairie du Chien route, with other comments to follow.

Constructing and Financing the Interstate

By the 1950s the proposed interstate highway system had been laid out and strict guidelines for road access had been established, but funding was still not available.  In the 1952 Federal-Aid Highway Act, small funding provisions were made, including the creation of a 50/50 matching plan between state and federal governments.  Construction and progress on the superhighway system lagged under this financing and Congress made another attempt to finance the highway system in 1954.  The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1954 provided for an increase in the federal share from 50 to 60 percent that would go into effect after all funds from the 1952 act had been expended.  In an attempt to satisfy both the smaller populous eastern states and the larger, less-populated western states, 50 percent of the federal aid was based on population.  A formula was used to determine the other half of the federal share one-third on highway distance, one-third on population, and one-third on land area.


Erecting the sign for the
Wisconsin Dells turnoff
outside Madison in Dane County.
Courtesy of Wisconsin
Historical Society Archives.
(PH series 2706)

In 1954 efforts were made by President Eisenhower and Congress to address the nation's highway needs.  President Eisenhower had very strong feelings about the condition of the nation's highways.  In 1919 he traveled from Washington to San Francisco along the Lincoln Highway (USH 30) as a lieutenant colonel on the US Army's first transcontinental convoy of military vehicles.  The trip took two months, due mostly to poor road conditions.  As Supreme Allied Commander in World War II, Eisenhower witnessed Germany's autobahn system firsthand and became convinced of the need to improve his nation's roads.  The long and arduous journey on the Lincoln Highway and the effectiveness of the autobahn had a profound effect on Eisenhower.  He was quoted as saying, "The old (1919) convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land."

Appeals by Eisenhower and Congress led to the passing of the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act, authorizing construction of the 40,000 miles proposed in 1944.  In passing the act, Congress declared it essential to the national interest to provide a national system of interstate highways for early completion, as authorized under the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944.  The federal share of funding increased to 90 percent, reducing state funding to 10 percent.  This meant that for every $9 million that the federal government spent on construction, the state of Wisconsin was responsible for $1 million.  A highway trust fund was established to allocate funds to the states for construction, right-of-way, and planning.  These funds were limited to highway development and construction, but not solely interstate highways.   In addition to funding, the 1956 act changed the name of the super-highway system to "The National System of Interstate and Defense Highways," stressing the importance of national defense.

In addition to funding, the 1956 legislation provided that the 40,000-mile interstate highway system be completed within 13 to15 years, bringing the highway network to a simultaneous completion in all states.  Other provisions of the act included a request for uniform design standards to be agreed upon by the Bureau of Public Roads and the AASHO.  The act also suggested several population centers, known as "control points," located along avenues of the greatest travel.  The proposed highway was recommended to serve and connect these population centers.  Although inclusion of the "control points" was not mandated, federal, state, and local highway engineers mutually agreed that the interstate would connect these points.  Nationally, with connection of the control points, the interstate highway system would serve 90 percent of the cities in the United States with populations over 50,000, 65 percent of the urban population, and 50 percent of the rural population.  In 1958 it was estimated that the interstate system would carry 20 percent of all motor vehicle traffic, but would only constitute 1.2 percent of the country's total road mileage.

Initially, Wisconsin was to have only two interstate routes, I-90 and I-94.  However, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation was able to convince the federal government to approve I-43 between Milwaukee and Green Bay.  In the 1980s, I-43 was extended southwest to Beloit.

Wisconsin began interstate construction in 1956 between Goerke's Corners and CTH SS in Waukesha County, completing it two years later.  Between 1959 and 1969, over 75 percent of the Wisconsin interstate system was built, including the east-west and north-south Milwaukee freeways (I-94) and the Milwaukee Bypass (I-894).  Wisconsin completed its initial interstate system, with the exception of urban sections in Milwaukee, in 1969 at a time when only 70 percent were completed nationwide.  The first interstate segment to be reconstructed was an I-94 segment in Kenosha County, originally completed in 1959.  Lanes were added in 1983 to the heaviest-traveled "rural" segment in the nation.  In 1984 the segment between Madison and Portage was reconstructed with additional lanes as well.


Dedication of Wisconsin's First
Expressway, September 4, 1958.
Courtesy of Wisconsin
Historical Society Archives.
(Image ID1873)

Wisconsin's fourth interstate highway was designated in the 1990s as I-39 located between Portage and Wausau, which was later extended southerly along I-90 and I-94 into Beloit.  This resulted in the three-way concurrent designation of I-39/I-90/I-94 between Madison and Portage.  The Federal Highway Administration denied more recent requests for other interstate routes in Wisconsin, including a route between Milwaukee and Janesville - Beloit.

Freeways and Expressways

An extensive system of freeways was proposed for the Metropolitan Milwaukee area in the late 1950s and 1960s.  The Milwaukee County Expressway Commission was formed in 1954 to designate the routes, plan and design the system, and arrange for the necessary right-of-way acquisition and utility relocation.

In 1955 the commission completed a final revised plan for the system, with completion expected around 1972.  The system was to include several urban freeway routes and interchanges.

Of the proposed freeways, only seven were completed in entirety: the North-South Freeway as I-94 and I-43; the East-West Freeway, I-94; the Airport Freeway, I-894; a portion of the Lake Freeway, I-794; a portion of the Fond du Lac Freeway; the Zoo Freeway; and the Rock Freeway, Highway 15.  Four others were begun but never completed: Stadium Freeway, US 41; Park Freeway, SR 145; Fond du Lac Freeway, SR 145; and Lake Freeway, I-794.  The Belt Freeway was never begun.

Public support changed in the 1970s with rigid opposition to the uncompleted remnants of the proposed system.  Several "stub-ends" remain today where freeways terminate somewhat randomly.

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