I was born in the back seat of a Greyhound bus,
Rollin’ down Interstate 41 …
OK, the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man” doesn’t particularly fit here. (For one thing, the narrator is the son of a Georgia gambler who wound up on the wrong end of a gun; nevertheless them Delta women thought the world of him.) It does, however, commemorate the news Gov. Scott Walker’s office released Thursday:
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker announced today that U.S. 41 in the eastern part of the state has been officially added to the Interstate System as I-41.
“The Interstate designation is the culmination of years of hard work by federal, state, and local officials that will stimulate economic opportunities from Milwaukee to Green Bay and beyond,” Governor Walker said. “Our Interstate system is a critical part of our infrastructure, which fuels commerce, helps grow the economy, and create jobs.”
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) officially approved the Interstate designation – the final step in a process that began nearly 10 years ago. Installation of about 3,000 new signs will begin this summer with signing expected to be completed by November 2015.
“The official designation of I-41 is tremendous news that will support the safe, efficient movement of people and commerce for many years to come,” said Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb. “Along with Governor Walker’s leadership, I want to thank former Congressman Tom Petri, our current Congressional delegation, state legislators, local government officials, and community leaders who helped make I-41 a reality.
Wisconsin’s newest Interstate route runs concurrently with US 41 for the entire route. I-41 begins at the I-94/US 41 interchange located about one mile south of the Wisconsin/Illinois border. It follows I-94 north to the Mitchell Interchange, I-894 and US 45 around Milwaukee and then joins US 41 north to Green Bay where it ends at the I-43 Interchange.
Existing US 41 in the Milwaukee area will be re-routed to follow I-41 along I-894 and US 45. Current US 41 along Lisbon Avenue and Appleton Avenue from I-94 at the Stadium Interchange northwesterly to the interchange with US 45 will be re-numbered WIS 175.
Got all that?
This was one of the issues I watched in my previous life as a business magazine editor. The great (though apparently not currently updated) Wisconsin Highways website brings some history of Wisconsin’s efforts at Interstates from the state Department of Transportation:
The State Highway Engineer, in 1945, submitted tentative route designations that included the currently used I-94 in southeast Wisconsin plus the Highway 18 zone between Madison-Prairie du Chien; Highway 51 northerly from the present Interstate toward Hurley; Hwy. 53 between Eau Claire-Superior; a route between Milwaukee-Green Bay; and an east-west loop between Green Bay-Eau Claire where it would have linked with the present I-94.
The first Washington response was to substitute Tomah-La Crosse for Madison-Prairie du Chien. Other responses followed.
In the meantime, the Turnpike Commission, established by Wisconsin Laws of 1953, was looking over the situation.
Wisconsin had anticipated the Interstate, in a way, with studies of a possible toll road-turnpike. Consulting engineers from Baltimore, Md., and New York City in 1954 submitted, respectively, a preliminary engineering statement and traffic-revenue study.
The latter concluded that a toll road between Hudson and Hwy. 41, the Hwy. 29 loop, would be “cost beneficial” for motorists and profitable for the state.
The Maryland consultant’s study looked at routes in the present I-90/94 corridor, except Tomah-La Crosse, along with a loop between Madison-Wisconsin Dells through Sauk City and another connecting Hwy. 41 near Kenosha through Burlington and Fort Atkinson to Madison. This study inferred that parallel routes might reduce potential tolls and lead to unprofitability.
In June 1955, the Turnpike Commission reported to the Legislature that the Illinois-Wisconsin corridor was not feasible at the time and recommended delay “until future developments can be fully appraised.”
Another toll road study was conducted at the State Legislature’s request in 1982. Both a cursory Departmental analysis and a consultant’s subsequent assessment reached negative conclusions.7
Meanwhile, Washington-Madison negotiations continued. In 1955, assuming that there would be 2,400 miles of urban additions to the Interstate system, the Commission asked for four more sections in the city of Milwaukee. This included a loop around the central district, Howard Avenue-South 44th Street, a 2.3 mile extension toward Glendale, and a 7.3 mile extension toward Hwy. 100.
Letter exchanges continued in 1956 with requests for extensions into Madison, La Crosse, and Eau Claire—all denied.
Other decisions came in December. Washington denied the state’s request for a route between Genoa City-Beloit, opting instead for Madison-Janesville-Beloit. A Milwaukee-Green Bay (Hwy. 41) route was approved, but the state failed to get plans completed in time to meet a deadline and the effort failed, according to G. H. Bakke, a legislator at the time.
The Commission made another try in March 1958 for additional mileage between Marinette-Milwaukee. This was denied is less than a month.
In February 1963, a request was submitted for a route between Milwaukee and Superior by way of Green Bay, Wausau, Hurley and Ashland. The additions, the covering letter said, could be done in “increments, if necessary: Milwaukee-Green Bay, Green Bay urban extension, Green Bay-Wausau, Wausau-Superior.” Except for Milwaukee-Green Bay [in 1972] this, too, was denied.
Nearly a decade later, still another try was made. In separate booklets, emphasizing necessary connections, the Department of Transportation asked for approval of Interstates between Milwaukee-Beloit and Milwaukee-Janesville; for connections again via Hwys. 52[sic] and 53 to the northlands, for the east-west (Hwy. 29) freeway, for extensions southerly in the Milwaukee area, for Green Bay-Milwaukee, and the Airport Spur.
The Green Bay-Milwaukee (now I-43), the Lake Freeway (I-794), and Airport Spur extensions were subsequently approved. From what had been some 480 miles of Interstate, the Wisconsin system became 578 miles.
Immediately ahead lay controversy about the location and numbering of the Milwaukee-Green Bay route. The first proposal was a Hwy. 57 corridor about midway between Hwy. 141 along Lake Michigan on the east and Hwy. 41 through the Fox Valley to the west. The ultimate compromise was to use most of existing Hwy. 141 between Milwaukee-Sheboygan, then to angle mostly on new location between Sheboygan-Green Bay, and to call it I-43.
The final Wisconsin Interstate project was authorized in 1985 in the form of an I-43 ramp connection in Sheboygan.
In a concluding word about the Interstate discussion to this point, state statistics supported claims for more corridors. As a two percent state (population, vehicles, other common indicators) but with only a shade over one percent of the national Interstate mileage, Wisconsin authorities felt deprived.
They also felt Wisconsin met all of the criteria for Interstate corridors: serving national defense; integrating the national system by filling missing links; assisting industrial, recreational and commercial movement, and “providing direct access to, for, and from rural and urban areas.”
Apparently, being tucked away from major east-west and north-south routings, perhaps lacking enough aggressiveness, and being out of federal political favor at the wrong times, were handicaps too great to be overcome by logic.
At the same time, there was evidence of limited foresight and apathy, according to Bakke.
Bakke added that lack of state vision and local enthusiasm—especially in Madison—also contributed to the shortchanging of the state. He noted the Turnpike Commission estimated Beloit-Madison traffic would reach 4,000 by 1980. In reality, it was 16,000-plus.
(As I wrote here Saturday: Government incompetence is not a recent development.)
It is interesting to note that of the original proposed list of Interstates, the only one that didn’t become an Interstate was the Madison-to-Prairie du Chien route. There apparently also was a proposal at some point to make what now is U.S. 14 from La Crosse to Madison a freeway instead of the route that became Interstate 90 to Tomah. That would have eliminated the instant bottleneck that I-90/94 from Tomah to Madison became (particularly when you got to the Dells, thanks to Tommy Bartlett and his successors), and it certainly would have been an economic shot in the arm to southwest Wisconsin.
Wisconsin Highways also has an exhaustive history of 41 dating back to when it went through downtown Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, Appleton and Green Bay, beginning with:
While the State of Wisconsin is home to several US Highways and four Interstates, US-41 has always seemed to outshine them all for some reason. From its inception, it has not only served the state’s largest city, Milwaukee, but also serves or connects more of the state’s other large cities together than any other primary route. From Racine and Kenosha south of Milwaukee to Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, Appleton and the rest of the Fox Cities up to Green Bay and Marinette on the Michigan state line. US-41 was also the first highway to see major upgrades and realignments, even before the Interstate highway system was a glint in someone’s eye.
I look at 41 as the highway that builds things too. Go from Fond du Lac to Green Bay, and you find Mercury Marine, Oshkosh Corp., a huge number of other manufacturers, and major paper operations.
State transportation officials hoped that what now is I-41 could become an extension of Interstate 55, which runs from Chicago to New Orleans. WisDOT’s Illinois counterparts were uninterested. Other numbers then were considered, but it’s a good thing, absent extending I-55, that it will be known as I-41, even though it follows U.S. 41 and part of U.S. 45 along the way. It would be nice to extend I-41 to the Wisconsin/Michigan state line, but that would require the state of Michigan to care at all about its Upper Peninsula. (North of I-43 U.S. 41 is now four lanes into Marinette, but 41 is two lanes once you get into Michigan. The only Upper Peninsula Interstate is I-75 from the adventure that is the Mackinac Bridge up to Sault Ste. Marie.)
I last drove 41 a month ago when I got to cover the state girls basketball tournament. I am a little surprised the state is putting up Interstate shields; I thought WisDOT would just put up green flags, given that if you’re going the speed limit, you’re going to get passed.
One interesting fact about I-41 is that as an Interstate it is now subject to the Highway Beautification Act. All the billboards you see along 41 will be the only billboards you see on 41, because said Highway Beautification Act prohibits new or expanded billboards along Interstates. Given that it seems like half the state’s billboards are along 41, well, what you see is what you will get.
Interstate 41 is an example of one of the few actually worthwhile big-ticket government spending projects, because (1) Interstates get goods from manufacturer to seller, and (2) Interstates are the best current example of transportation freedom, where you go where you want to go when you want to go, unlike airplanes, trains or buses.
I-41 also is an example that political clout matters. The credit for pushing I-41 where it counts, since Interstates are federal highways, goes to former U.S. Rep. Tom Petri (R-Fond du Lac), who was in his third decade in Congress when he was able to successfully get the Interstate designation through Congress. Petri represented Wisconsin much better than the two U.S. senators who claimed to be representing Wisconsin but weren’t in the 1990s and 2000s, Herb “Nobody’s Senator But” Kohl and Rusty the Phony Maverick Feingold. Neither did one thing to promote 41 as an Interstate. Petri did, and Republicans thanked him by hounding him out of office.
At any rate, Interstate 41 is important for Wisconsin for the reasons Walker mentioned and others. Just make sure you keep up with the traffic.