Interstate 196 provides a regional connection in part with Interstate 94 from the Chicagoland area and Michiana north to Grand Rapids and Muskegon along the east shore of Lake Michigan. Named after Gerald R. Ford, the freeway honors the 38th President of the U.S. 2016 Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) traffic counts along I-196 peak at 89,600 vehicles per day (vpd) north of Downtown Grand Rapids. With 20,915 vpd, the least traveled section of I-196 is the segment between Exits 13 and 18 near South Haven.
Doubling as U.S. 31, I-196 branches north from I-94 in a rural area outside the city of Benton Harbor. The two cross the Paw Paw River en route to Lake Michigan Beach, where they begin mirroring Lake Michigan coastline north into Van Buren County.
Heading north to Van Buren State Park, I-196/U.S. 31 travel just inland from the lake along a rural course populated by forested hills. Advancing to the city of South Haven, the first of three business routes from I-196 separates with the freeway. I-196 bypasses the city of 4,400 to the east, while Business Loop I-196 forms an L-shaped route to the city center.
Crossing into Allegan County, I-196/U.S. 31 resume a rural course and shift slightly further east before nearing the lake shore again near Saugatuck. Turning east to bypass the small city, the freeway crosses the Kalamazoo River adjacent to Douglas Bayou as I-196 begins to trend northeast toward Grand Rapids.
U.S. 31 separates from Interstate 196 at Holland, initially traveling an expressway along side Business Loop I-196. I-196 skirts the south side of Holland and the adjacent city of Zeeland to Exit 55, where Business Loop I-196 returns. A rural stretch ensues from there leading to Hudsonville and the Grand Rapids metropolitan area.
M-6 constitutes a freeway bypass south of Grand Rapids by way of Cutlerville and Gainesville Township to Interstate 96 leading east to Lansing. I-196 meanwhile curves northward into Kent County through urban areas of Grandville, Wyoming and the west side of Grand Rapids. A directional interchange where the roadways of U.S. 131 switch sides, connects the north to south freeway with Interstate 196 at its second crossing of the Grand River. The remainder of the freeway east passes through Downtown en route to the route end at Interstate 96.
The Recommended Numbering plan for Interstate Highways in Michigan, compiled by the Michigan State Highway Department in the 1950s, outlined Interstate 67 along the freeway corridor leading southwest from Grand Rapids to Holland and Benton Harbor. I-196 was proposed as an urban loop encircling the west and south sides of Grand Rapids. Interstate 296, later the unsigned route for U.S. 131 through Grand Rapids, was proposed for what is now I-496 through Lansing.1
By 1958, the Michigan Interstate system was finalized, with I-96 designated along the U.S. 16 corridor west from Detroit to Lansing and Grand Rapids, and along the previously proposed route of Interstate 67 leading southwest to Holland and south to Benton Harbor. Interstate 196 was assigned to the freeway connecting Grand Rapids with U.S. 31 at Muskegon to the west.2
The I-196 freeway between Muskegon to Grand Rapids was finished in 1961, as was I-96 extending east from Grand Rapids to Lansing. Construction was underway to build the urban stretch of freeway through Grand Rapids, when AASHO approved a request by the state in 1963 to switch Interstates 96 and 196 west from Grand Rapids so that I-96 continued to Muskegon and I-196 would follow the route south to Benton Harbor. A 12.5 mile section of I-196 was completed in December 1964 from M-121 / Chicago Drive (Exit 69) east to I-96.2