Its neighbor to the east may claim “The Crossroads of America” title, but by nearly any measure, Illinois is the heart of the U.S. Interstate system.

Illinois has the third highest total of Interstate routes and mileage. Only New York and California have more I-designated roadways, with 7- and 25-million more residents, respectively. Only Texas and California routes cover more mileage, though those states are five and  three times larger by territory.

And the importance of the routes — many of which were designed to pass through or near Chicago, with its access to the global economy — further spell out the importance of Illinois as a hub of trans-U.S. travel. The two longest treks of the Interstate system, I-90 and I-80, pass through Illinois on their coast-to-coast journeys. And two key connections to the Gulf States, I-55 and I-65, reach their nadir in the Chicago area. Add in I-57, I-64, I-70 and I-94 and an Illinois driver can reach almost every population center in the nation by navigating one interchange.

The cover of the 64-page Illinois 200 special bicentennial edition. | Sun-Times files

“Illinois is at the heart of the country’s interstate highway system,” the Illinois Department of Transportation boasts. That was not without intent: When the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways was authorized in 1956, Illinois was the fourth most-populous state in the nation (Texas and Florida leaped over Illinois in the rankings during the second-half of the 20th century).

Illinois was a key part of the economic structure of the country — its endless fields a critical part of the food supply, its inland port a means for the Midwest industrial centers to reach the outside world, and its train yards the center from which the entire U.S. rail system operated.

It was natural, then, that the original Interstate plan released in 1955 saw key arteries originate and pass through Illinois, including I-55, I-57, I-64, I-70, I-74, I-80, I-90 and I-94. Illinois was cementing its place as the heart of the nation’s roads.

As the Interstate system began to take shape, Illinois’ road budget began its long climb to the present-day $14.1 billion figure. Maintenance costs ballooned from $59.6 million to $128.1 million during the 1950s. A state commission recommended the formation of IDOT, bringing the transportation system, including the interstates, under a single office in Springfield.

When IDOT formed in 1972, only I-64 remained incomplete from the U.S. government’s original Interstate plan, and I-72, then spanning from Champaign to Springfield, had been added to the state’s growing highway system. Throughout this rapid transition of the Illinois’s highway system, the bane of existence for commuters in and around the Chicago area came into existence: the Illinois Tollway.

As the state struggled to complete modern highways during World War II, the first tollway commission was established, becoming the Illinois State Toll Highway Commission in 1953. The initial three toll roads, completed by 1958 – the Jane Addams, Tri-State and East-West Tollways – all were eventually rolled into the Interstate system as the nationwide spiderweb of superhighways began to take shape. Today, the re-christened Toll Authority has added I-355 and state Route 390 among the ranks of its administered roads.


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By the early 1990s, the majority of the modern Illinois Interstate system was complete. As the USDOT planned supplementary highways in the 1960s and 1970s to fill in gaps between anchor roads of the original 1956 decree, Illinois laid down pavement over its vast farmlands. I-24 was completed in the south of the state, and the state’s portion of I-64 was completed in 1974. State Route 5, the original moniker of the East-West Tollway, saw a re-designation to I-88 in 1987 as Illinois sought to raise the speed limit on the route connecting Chicago to the Quad Cities.

A truck drives out of the city on Interstate 55 on January 25, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

 

With that, I-39 saw its first segment replace the existing U.S. 51 from U.S. 20 outside Rockford to Rochelle. While IDOT had requested I-39 to stretch from the Wisconsin border to Marion County, the length of the proposed highway was shortened through a number of revisions, with the final route ending at Bloomington. U.S. 51 was upgraded through to Decatur as part of the overhaul.

Since the completion of I-39 in 1992, Illinois has seen only one new Interstate: the 9/10ths of a mile I-41 in Lake County. That roadway came about as a construct of the Wisconsin DOT re-purposing U.S. 41, from the north suburbs of Chicago to Green Bay, into an Interstate of its own. Its brief stint in Illinois sees it paired with I-94 as it crosses the state line.

All told, 24 routes — 13 primary and 11 secondary — compose the modern Illinois Interstate, covering some 2,500 miles. And while Indiana may continue to lay claim to that “crossroads” crown, as Illinois celebrates 200 years — with nearly 1,000 more miles of blue-and-red-signed roadways than its eastern neighbor — its residents should know that it is still the true heart of America’s fascination with the highway.

Interstate timeline

1916: The Federal Aid Road Act is passed to establish a nationwide system of modern highways. World War I prevents most of its funds from being disbursed, and the Act passes out of law in 1921.

1918: A civil engineer during a presentation at The Congress Hotel in Chicago proposes a 50,000-mile system of transnational highways.

1921: The Phipps Act, a reconstruct of the 1916 act, targets funding for a nationwide series of interconnected highways. Gen. John J. Pershing follows up with a proposed map of roads considered of importance to the national defense, with 20,000 miles of interconnected primary highways.

1939: The Bureau of Public Roads Division under President Franklin Roosevelt issues a report, “Toll Road and Free Roads,” now considered the first blueprint of the Interstate Highway System.

1941: The Toll Highway Authority is established as highway construction around Chicago stalls during World War II.

1951: The Edens Expressway, the state’s first expressway and now part of I-94, opens north of Chicago.

1953: The Illinois State Toll Highway Commission is established, replacing the THA.

1955: Inspired by his travel across the United States as a young Army officer and his time in Germany during World War II, President Dwight D. Eisenhower announces plans for the modern Interstate system.

1956: The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 is signed into law, establishing the Interstate Highway System.

1957: Construction of I-80 begins, with the modern Kingery Expressway being the first section of Interstate open in Illinois.

1958: The Northwest, Tri-State and East-West Tollways open.

1959: The original five tollway oases are opened.

1964: The Stevenson Expressway, one of the first portions of I-55 completed near Chicago, opens. The earliest stretch of I-55 was a reclaimed portion of U.S. 66. The St. Louis-Chicago connection was part of the second phase of Interstates finished in the 1970s.

1968: I-80 is completed.

1969: I-180, a 13-mile spur in the center of the state, is completed, connecting I-80 to the Jones & Laughlin steel plant in Hennepin. The plant closes soon after I-180’s completion and doesn’t re-open until 2002.

1971: I-57, Illinois’ longest Interstate at 386 miles, is completed near Paxton.

1972: IDOT is formed following a decade-long study of Illinois’ transportation system.

1978: The Eisenhower Expressway is re-designated as I-290. It was formerly considered part of I-90, which was moved to the Northwest Tollway and Kennedy Expressway.

1984: I-39 from Rochelle to Rockford is opened.

1987: I-88, the former East-West Tollway renamed in honor of President Ronald Reagan, is completed, reaching its west end at I-80 in East Moline.

1989: I-355 is opened in the western suburbs, alleviating traffic on the Tri-State Tollway and creating another bypass route around Chicago.

1992: I-39 is completed.

2009: I-490, a bypass around the west side of O’Hare International Airport, is proposed. Construction is expected to begin in 2018.

2015: I-41 is completed in northeast Lake County. The road runs only 9/10ths of a mile in Illinois.

Shane Nicholson of the Rock River Times can be reached at shane.nicholson@rockrivertimes.com.

Editor’s note: The weekly Illinois Bicentennial series is brought to you by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers are creating stories about the state’s history, places and key moments in advance of the Bicentennial on Dec. 3, 2018. Stories published up to this date can be found at 200illinois.com.