A million miles from Monday

Around the turn of the 21st Century, Illinois’ tourism marketing slogan was “A million miles from Monday,” showcasing the many getaways to be found along the roads throughout the state. Though we don’t quite have a million actual miles of roadway in Illinois, our state does have an extensive highway system that has been developing since before Illinois achieved statehood almost 200 years ago.

Today, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation, Illinois has 146,890 miles of roads, 16,000 of which are under state jurisdiction. The state has 2100 miles of interstate highway, which is the 3rd most of any state in the country. In Illinois nine million licensed drivers operate 10.2 million registered vehicles to the tune of 105 billion miles of travel in the state each year.

But it hasn’t always been this way.

Just four months after statehood, in March 1819, the 1st General Assembly passed, “An Act for Opening, Repairing, Improving and Regulating Roads and Highways and Creating a Fund for that Purpose.” This first highway act directed counties to elect road commissioners and township road officials. Among other things the act laid out the processes for maintenance of roads and soliciting bids for road labor.

Fifteen years later, the construction of the National Road; which had been authorized by President Thomas Jefferson a dozen years before Illinois statehood; arrived at the state’s capital city of Vandalia. The plan had been to continue the road west into Missouri, but funding ran out in 1833, making Vandalia its western terminus for many years. The National Road was also called the Cumberland Road because it set out from Cumberland, Maryland, before going through the Appalachians and into the west. The new road; today known as U.S. 40; brought a great many new settlers to Illinois during the early decades of statehood.

With the advent of automobiles around the beginning of the 20th century, it became necessary to improve the roads to handle the new vehicles. Governor Richard Yates in 1903 signed legislation creating the Good Roads Commission, which was charged with finding ways to improve the (mostly dirt) roads, determine what materials to use and decide how to pay for a system of roads that would reach across the state. That same year, the University of Illinois established a laboratory for testing road materials.

Illinois began regulating motor vehicles when Governor Charles Deneen signed the Motor Vehicle Law of 1907. This act required drivers to register vehicles with the Secretary of State and created “dash disks,” the forerunners of today’s license plates. Cars were also required to have “good and sufficient brakes,” and could travel no faster than one mile in three minutes in rural areas and one mile in six minutes in town.

Six years later, the first truly transcontinental highway reached Illinois. As the Lincoln Highway traversed the country from New Jersey to California, it carried motorists across northern Illinois. Today, the Lincoln Highway route is still marked: U.S. 30 to Aurora, Illinois 31 from Aurora to Geneva, Illinois 38 west to Dixon, Illinois 2 west to Sterling and U.S. 30 from Sterling to the Iowa line. But while some parts of the Lincoln Highway were in fine driving condition, others barely existed at all. In 1919, Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower traveled the Lincoln Highway as part of a convoy to see if it was possible for the U.S. Army to cross the entire country by road. The ensuing ordeal convinced Eisenhower of the need for a much-improved highway network for the nation.

Illinois created its first State Highway Department in 1913 and gave it a budget of $100,000, which was expanded to $400,000 the next year. With this, the state began the process of building a network of “hard roads” throughout Illinois. Federal highway aid began arriving in 1916 as the U.S. government sought to improve roads for the purpose of mail delivery. A couple of years later, Governor Frank Lowden put before the voters a $60 million bond issue designed to construct new hard-surface roads throughout the state. With automobiles now a presence in nearly every community of Illinois, it was enthusiastically approved and 4800 miles of new roads were built by 1925. It was the beginning of the modern statewide highway network in Illinois.

Illinois became a leader in the development of highway road materials in the 1920s. As part of the highway program authorized during the Lowden administration, engineers built a track 15 miles west of Springfield and used different materials and construction techniques on different portions, then studied the results over the next three years. Their findings not only helped develop the highway system of the 1920s, but they still form the foundation of road building today. A similar experiment was repeated in Illinois decades later during the construction of the Interstate highway system.

With the expanding highway system came the need for someone to enforce the traffic laws and aid motorists in distress. In 1921, an agency known as the Illinois State Highway Maintenance Police was created. The agency was given the authority to enforce the motor vehicle laws and make arrests where necessary. They were also charged with conducting vehicle inspections and weighing vehicles that looked like they might exceed the highway weight limits. A year later, the name was officially shortened to Illinois State Police.

More and better roads would require more funds, year after year. So in 1927, Illinois created its motor fuel tax. The tax was set at two cents per gallon and all the revenue generated was paid into the state road fund. These funds augmented the revenue that was brought in through licensing fees to help build and maintain the roads.

The public works projects of President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression brought many miles of new roads to Illinois. Over eight years, Illinois received more than $700 million in WPA funds, which were used to build or upgrade thousands of miles of roads and build nearly 2000 new bridges. Around that same time, Illinois did away with its rural highway speed limit, trusting drivers to select a speed which was “reasonable and proper.” This standard remained the law until 1957 when a 65 mph speed limit was enacted on rural roads.

More than 30 years after his nightmarish drive across the country, now-President Eisenhower signed into law the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created the interstate highway system. In the following two years, Illinois would spend almost half a billion dollars on highway construction, producing over 1500 miles of highway. Illinois had been developing a plan for “superhighways” as early as 1946, and it was easily integrated into the new nationwide highway plan. Construction on Illinois’ interstate highway system began in 1956 on what is now Interstate 74 near Champaign.

Since then, Illinois’ highway system has continued to grow and evolve. The General Assembly created a 75,000 word “Highway Code” in 1959, and created the Illinois Department of Transportation in 1972. In response to an article in Life magazine which called a highway in northern Illinois, “a deathtrap…where trucks devour cars,” Governor Richard Ogilvie in 1969 launched the Immediate Action Program to “rid the state of killer highways.” The program dramatically improved safety on Illinois highways.

Over the years, Illinois has built and expanded more roads, lowered and raised its speed limit, and pioneered new laws and techniques for making driving safer. The result has been a state that is the transportation crossroads of the entire nation.

More information about the history and development of Illinois’ transportation system from the Illinois Department of Transportation can be found here.