Interstate 39 runs north-south through Illinois and Wisconsin as a long distance bypass for traffic around the Chicago and Milwaukee metropolitan areas. A mostly rural route, I-39 begins on the north side of Normal at I-55, overtaking U.S. 51 north to Peru and La Salle, where it meets Interstate 80. North from there, the freeway continues to I-88 outside Rochelle and U.S. 20 on the south side of Rockford.
U.S. 20 turns the freeway east to Interstate 90, the Jane Addams Memorial (Northwest) Tollway. I-39 & 90 combine there along the east side of Rockford to Beloit, Wisconsin, where they meet the south end of Interstate 43. Advancing northward, the pair pass through Janesville while en route to the capital city of Madison. There Interstate 94 ties in from Waukesha and Milwaukee to the east to form the longest three-way overlap on the Interstate system.
Interstates 39, 90 and 94 share 29 miles of freeway along a northward heading from Madison to the outskirts of Portage. I-39 separates with I-90 & 94 just beyond the Wisconsin River to again overtake U.S. 51 northward from Portage to Packawaukee, Plover and Stevens Point.
U.S. 10 combines with Interstate 39 & U.S. 51 from Stevens Point to a August 2012-completed freeway leading west to Junction City and Milladore. U.S. 51 otherwise parallels the Wisconsin River north to Mosinee, Rothschild and its terminus at the south junction of U.S. 51 and Wis 29. U.S. 51 extends the freeway north along side Wis 29 to Wausau and as a solo route northward to Merrill.
A long term project underway in south central Wisconsin, the I-39/90 Expansion Project, affects 45 miles of the Interstates 39 & 90 overlap from the Illinois state line to U.S. 12 & 18 at Madison. The 1960s-era freeway includes 11 interchanges with elements of substandard design. Upgrades to the corridor include expansion of the freeway mainline to six overall lanes, reconfiguring the aforementioned interchanges, and additional expansion of I-39 & 90 to eight lanes between Wis 11 (Avalon Road) north to Wis 26. Construction runs from 2015 to 2023.
The conversion of Exit 177 with Wis (Avalon Road) to a diverging diamond interchange will be the first DDI in the state. Further south at Beloit, a major upgrade projected to start in summer 2019 will revamp the southern terminus of Interstate 43 at Wis 81. The current full-cloverleaf interchange there will converted into a semi/directional T for freeway to freeway movements and a DDI for movements to Wis 81 leading west into Beloit.
North End – Wausau, WI
South End – Normal, IL
Branch Routes – 0
Total Mileage – 306.14
Illinois – 123.42
Cities – Normal, La Salle, Mendota, Rockford
- Junctions –
Wisconsin – 182.72
Cities – Beloit, Janesville, Madison, Portage, Plover/Stevens Point, Wausau
- Junctions –
Source: December 31, 2017 Interstate Route Log and Finders List
I-39 was extended south from I-80 to Oglesby in early 1989. The freeway was first envisioned in 1945 as a high speed route between Salem and South Beloit.8
Parallel U.S. Routes
Interstate 39 overlays or parallels U.S. 51 for nearly its entire length. With the possible exception of the segment between I-90 & 94 and U.S. 51 at Portage, Interstate 39 is cosigned with at least one other route for all 306 miles.
When commissioned in 1984, Interstate 39 was only constructed and signed between Former Illinois 5 (East-West Tollway/Interstate 88) and U.S. 20 at Rockford. The section between Illinois 5 and Interstate 80 was opened in 1986. In December 1987, another segment of I-39 was opened from I-80 across the Illinois River, south to Old U.S. 51 (now Illinois 251). Between 1987 and 1992, the section of I-39 between IL 251 and Bloomington-Normal was constructed. AASHTO approved the extension of Interstate 39 from Rockford, Illinois north to Wis 29 in Wausau, Wisconsin, on October 22, 1993.
Signs were slow to appear along the overlap with Interstate 90 and I-90 & 94 in southern Wisconsin. The mainline was well posted with reassurance markers, but intersecting roads generally omitted the I-39 designation to at least 2003. One signing oddity was made in the city of Madison, where instead of signing Interstates 39, 90 & 94 with three separate signs, a single blank Interstate shield was used instead. These trailblazers are posted near East Towne Mall, which is located southwest of the U.S. 151 interchange with Interstates 39-90-94.6
Construction on Interstate 39 was initiated in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The following chronology shows the construction time line of I-39, including information provided by Steve Sarver and Robb Haukohl:3
- 1984 – Interstate 39 from U.S. 20 near Rockford to Illinois 5 near Rochelle was opened.
- 1986 – Interstate 39 extended from Illinois 5 to Interstate 80.
- December 1987 – the section from Interstate 80 south across the Illinois River was opened and its southern terminus was Illinois 251 (old U.S. 51). It was not open from Illinois 251 to Illinois 71. Named the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Bridge, at one mile in length, the span is the longest in Illinois.
- Late 1988 – construction began on the interchange with Interstate 55 in Bloomington
- Summer of 1990 – Interstate 55 was reconstructed around Normal to handle an additional lane of traffic. The existing interchange of U.S. 51 and I-55 was closed completely and then reconstructed with its present configuration. Bridge work continued for the overpasses between Normal and Oglesby. The section from Oglesby to Normal utilizes a unique style of overpass construction that allowed for the elimination of the center pier. U.S. 51 was rerouted onto the Interstate 55/74 bypass around Bloomington-Normal, and the main route town was designated as Business U.S. 51 (AASHTO action taken established Business U.S. 51 on June 2, 1990).
- Summer/Fall of 1991 – segments of the new highway were opened south to Illinois 18.
- May 29, 1992 – 4.4 miles of I-39 opened between Hudson and Kappa.
- October 31, 19928 – final segment of Interstate 39 opened, completing the entire freeway from Rockford to Bloomington. Illinois 251 extends on most of the old U.S. 51; some minor rerouting was necessary because the new four-lane highway was built on top of the two-lane road. It is interesting to note that Illinois 251 terminates just north of Normal, while the four-lane Business U.S. 51 was constructed over the old U.S. 51 for several miles north of Normal. There is a gap of several miles between the two.
- October 22, 1993 – Interstate 39 extension to Wisconsin approved by AASHTO.
- Mid-1995 – rest areas were opened on both sides of Interstate 39 between Rockford and LaSalle (I-80). Prior to this time, “phantom exits” were built to illustrate where the actual ramps would be. Also, before the rest areas opened, “Truck Pull-Off Areas” existed on both sides of the highway several miles north of the rest areas. These were later closed and fenced off to prevent access.
- 1998-1999 – Interstate 39 extended again, this time into Wisconsin. Signage was placed first on the U.S. 51 freeway from Portage north to Wausau, and co-signage with Interstates 90 and 94 was added thereafter. The 1999 Rand McNally was the first atlas to show Interstate 39 along these routes through Illinois and Wisconsin.
- 2003-2004 – At the Interstate 39/90 interchange in Rockford (Cherry Valley Interchange), the southbound toll was eliminated in December 2003, and the toll booth was torn down. The northbound toll was eliminated in November 2004.
- April 17, 2003 – E.J. ‘Zeke’ Giorgi Highway designated along Interstate 39 between I-88 (Ronald Reagan East-West Tollway) and the Illinois-Wisconsin State Line. Representative Zeke Giorgi pushed for the construction of Interstate 39 through Northern Illinois.2
An extension of Interstate 39 north from Wausau to Merrill along the U.S. 51 freeway remains a possibility. Craig Holl wrote Wisconsin DOT to determine whether plans called for upgrading this stretch of U.S. 51 into I-39. Douglas Ross responded in October 2002, “The DOT is currently using design standards that will satisfy requirements for an Interstate Highway, to develop plans for the reconstruction of the segment of USH 51/ STH 29 between Fox Glove Road and Bridge Street. To the best of my knowledge, the Department has no plans at this time to formally request that I-39 be extended; however, if the request is made in the future this segment of roadway should meet the design standard requirements after the reconstruction is completed.” A major project, started in 2004, upgraded the U.S. 51 freeway around Wausau to Interstate standards.1
Costing $291 million, the US 51/WIS 29 project reconstructed seven miles of U.S. 51 and Wis 29 betwen Foxglove Road and Bridge Street in Marathon County. The road was rebuilt into a six-lane freeway between the east and west interchanges with STH-29, with auxiliary lanes added as well. Work also included a revamp of the east and west U.S. 51 connection with STH-29 into high-speed systems interchanges. The east interchange was completed in 2006 and three of the four ramps at the west interchange were open to traffic in 2008. Overall construction was completed in 2010.1
The Cherry Valley Interchange project reconstructed the connection between Interstate 90 (Jane Addams Memorial Tollway) and Interstate 39 in Rockford. The project started in 2008 and was completed on November 13, 2010. This work upgraded the 1972-built trumpet interchange between I-39 & 90 to include high-speed ramps in all directions.4 An additional project widened the Tollway from Exit 3 (Rockton Road) to U.S. 20 Business (State Street) between 2007 and November 24, 2009.5
North End – Wausau, Wisconsin
South End – location
- Eric Conn, personal email (“Wisconsin 29”), Tuesday, November 30, 2004.
- “Madigan to dedicate Giorgi Highway today.” Rockford Register-Star, April 17, 2003.
- Robb Haukohl, personal email (“I-39 Updates”), Wednesday, March 30, 2005.
- “I-90/39 Ramp Project.” WIFR.com, July 23, 2010.
- “Jane Addams Memorial Tollway – Newburg Road to Rockton Road – Reconstruct & Widen” Illinois Tollway, press release, November 24, 2009.
- Chris Lokken, personal email (“Some information on Wisconsin’s interstates”), Friday, April 7, 2006 and May 11, 2006.
- Todd Applegate, personal email (“Updates on I-39/90/US 20 in Rockford, IL”), December 28, 2007.
- “Completion of last link ends the 47-year-old saga of I-39” Pantagraph, The (Bloomington, IL), October 31, 1992.
- 511 Wisconsin Construction Projects – October 22, 2015 Weekly Construction Update. North Central Region, Weekly Updates.
- US 51/WIS 29 project
http://www.dot.wisconsin.gov/projects/d4/us51wis29/index.htm, WisDOT project web site.
Page updated June 14, 2018.