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The system of United States numbered highways (often called U.S. Routes or U.S. Highways) is an integrated system of roads and highways in the United Statesmarker numbered within a nationwide grid. As these highways were coordinated among the states, they are infrequently referred to as Federal Highways, but they have always been maintained by state or local governments since their initial designation in 1926. The numbers and locations are coordinated by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). The only federal involvement in the AASHTO is a non-voting seat for the United States Department of Transportation. North to south highways are odd-numbered, with lowest numbers in the east and highest numbers in the west. Similarly, west to east highways are even-numbered, with the lowest numbers in the north and highest numbers in the south. Major north-south routes have numbers ending in "1" while major east-west routes have numbers ending in "0". Three-digit numbered highways are spur routes of each parent highway but are not necessarily connected to their parent route. Divided routes exist to provide two alignments to one route, even though many have been eliminated, while special routes, usually posted with a banner, can provide various routes, such as an alternate or bypass route, for a U.S. Highway. The Interstate Highway System has largely replaced the U.S. Highways for through traffic, though many important regional connections are still made by U.S. Highways, and new routes are still being added.

Prior to the U.S. Highways, auto trails were predominant in marking roads through the United States. In 1925, the Joint Board on Interstate Highways, recommended by American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO), worked to form a national numbering system for roads. After several meetings, a final report was approved by the Department of Agriculturemarker in November 1925. After numerous complaints from across the country about the assignment of routes, several modifications were made and the U.S. Highway System was approved in November 1926. As a result of compromises made to get the U.S. Highway System approved, many routes divided into two alignments to serve different towns. In subsequent years, the AASHTO called for splits in U.S. Highways to be eliminated. Expansion of the system continued until 1956 when the Interstate Highway System was formed and many U.S. Highways were replaced by Interstate Highways.

System details

In general, U.S. Highways do not have a minimum design standard, unlike the later Interstate Highways, and are not usually built to freeway standards, although some stretches of U.S. Highways do meet those standards. Many are the main streets of the cities and towns through which they run. However, new additions to the system must "substantially meet the current AASHTO design standards".

Except for toll bridges and tunnels, very few U.S. Highways are toll roads. AASHTO policy says that a toll road may only be included as a special route, and that "a toll-free routing between the same termini shall continue to be retained and marked as a part of the U.S. Numbered System." U.S. Route 3 meets this obligation, as in NH transitions to the Everett Turnpike. However, four toll roads in the system follow this:


The two-digit U.S. Routes follow a simple grid, in which odd-numbered routes run generally north to south and even-numbered routes run generally west to east. (U.S. Route 101 is considered a two-digit route, its first "digit" being 10.) Numbers generally increase from 1 in the east to 101 in the west and 2 in the north to 98 in the south. Numbers ending in 0 or 1 (and U.S. Route 2), and to a lesser extent in 5, were considered main routes in the early numbering, but extensions and truncations have made this distinction largely meaningless. For example, U.S. Route 6 was until 1964 the longest route (that distinction now belongs to U.S. Route 20). The Interstate Highway System's numbering grid, which has numbers increasing from west-to-east and south-to-north, is intentionally opposite from the U.S. grid, to keep identically-numbered routes apart and to keep them from being confused, not only by travelers, but also by emergency rescue services, such as paramedics, fire departments, ambulances, tow trucks, etc.

Three-digit numbers are assigned to spurs of two-digit routes. For instance, U.S. Route 201 splits from U.S. Route 1 at Brunswick, Mainemarker, and runs north to Canadamarker. Not all spurs travel in the same direction as their "parents"; some are only connected to their "parents" by other spurs, or not at all, instead only traveling near their "parents". As originally assigned, the first digit of the spurs increased from north to south and east to west along the "parent"; for example, U.S. Route 60 junctioned, from east to west, U.S. Route 160 in Missourimarker, U.S. Route 260 in Oklahomamarker, U.S. Route 360 in Texasmarker, and U.S. Route 460 and U.S. Route 560 in New Mexicomarker. As with the two-digit routes, three-digit routes have been added, removed, extended and shortened; the "parent-child" relationship is not always present. Several spurs of the decommissioned U.S. Route 66 still exist, and U.S. Route 191 travels from border to border, while U.S. Route 91 has been largely replaced by Interstate 15.

Several routes approved since 1980 do not follow the numbering pattern:

In addition, U.S. Route 163, designated in 1970, is nowhere near U.S. Route 63. The short U.S. Route 57, approved about 1970, connects to Federal Highway 57 in Mexicomarker, and it lies west of former U.S. Route 81.

While AASHTO guidelines specifically prohibit Interstate Highways and U.S. Highways from sharing a number within the same state (which is why there are no Interstates 50 or 60), the initial Interstate numbering approved in 1958 violated this with Interstate 24 and U.S. Route 24 in Illinoismarker and Interstate 40, Interstate 80, U.S. Route 40 and U.S. Route 80 in Californiamarker (US 40 and US 80 were removed from California in its 1964 renumbering). Some recent and proposed Interstates, some of them out-of-place in the grid, also violate this: Interstate 41 and U.S. Route 41 in Wisconsinmarker (which will run concurrently), Interstate 49 and U.S. Route 49 in Arkansasmarker, Interstate 69 and U.S. Route 69 in Texasmarker, and Interstate 74 and U.S. Route 74 in North Carolinamarker (which run concurrently).

For reasons unknown to even the Department of Transportation, there were never any U.S. routes numbered 39, 47, 86 and 88.

Divided and special routes

Divided routes have been around since 1926, and designate roughly-equivalent splits of routes. For instance, U.S. Route 11 splits into U.S. Route 11E (east) and U.S. Route 11W (west) in Knoxville, Tennesseemarker, and the routes rejoin in Bristol, Virginiamarker. Occasionally only one of the two routes is suffixed; U.S. Route 6N in Pennsylvaniamarker does not rejoin U.S. Route 6 at its west end. AASHTO has been trying to eliminate these since 1934; its current policy is to deny approval of new ones and to eliminate existing ones "as rapidly as the State Highway Department and the Standing Committee on Highways can reach agreement with reference thereto".

Special routes—those with a banner such as alternate or bypass—are also managed by AASHTO. These are sometimes designated with lettered suffixes, like A for alternate or B for business.


The official route log, last published by AASHTO in 1989, has been named United States Numbered Highways since its initial publication in 1926. In the log, "U.S. Route" is used in the table of contents, while "United States Highway" appears as the heading for each route. All reports of the Special Committee on Route Numbering, at least since 1989, use "U.S. Route", and federal laws relating to highways use "United States Route" or "U.S. Route" more often than the "Highway" variants. The use of U.S. Route or U.S. Highway on a local level depends on the state, with some states such as Delaware using "route" and others such as Colorado using "highway".


Early auto trails

In the early 1910s, auto trail organizations — most prominently the Lincoln Highway - began to spring up, marking and promoting routes for long-distance automobile travel. While many of these organizations worked with towns and states along the route to improve the roadways, others simply chose a route based on towns that were willing to pay dues, put up signs, and did little else.

Preliminary planning: the formation of the 1925 report

Wisconsin was the first state in the U.S. to number its highways, erecting signs in May 1918. Other states soon followed, and the New Englandmarker states got together in 1922 to establish the six-state New England Interstate Routes.

Behind the scenes, the federal aid program had begun with the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1916, providing 50% monetary support from the federal government for improvement of major roads. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921 limited the routes to 7% of each state's roads, while 3/7 had to be "interstate in character". Identification of these main roads was completed in 1923.

The American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO), formed in 1914 to help establish roadway standards, began to plan a system of marked and numbered "interstate highways" at its 1924 meeting. AASHO recommended that the Secretary of Agriculture work with the states to designate these routes.

Secretary Howard M. Gore appointed the Joint Board on Interstate Highways, as recommended by AASHO, on March 2, 1925. The Board was composed of 21 state highway officials and three federal Bureau of Public Roads officials. At the first meeting, on April 20 and 21, the name — U.S. Highway — was adopted. It was also decided that the system would not be limited to the federal-aid network; if the best route did not receive federal funds, it would still be included. The tentative design for the U.S. Highway shield was also adopted, based on the shield found on the Great Seal of the United States.

Opposition soon formed from the auto trail associations, who rejected the elimination of the highway names. Six regional meetings were held to hammer out the details — May 15 for the West, May 27 for the Mississippi Valley, June 3 for the Great Lakesmarker, June 8 for the South, June 15 for the North Atlantic, and June 15 for New Englandmarker. The auto trail associations were not able to address the meetings. However, as a compromise, they talked with the Joint Board members and came up with a general agreement with their plans. The tentative system added up to 81,000 miles (130,000 km), 2.8% of the public road mileage at the time.

The second full meeting was held August 3 and 4, 1925. At that meeting, discussion was held over the appropriate density of routes. William F. Williams of Massachusettsmarker and Frederick S. Greene of New Yorkmarker favored a system of only major transcontinental highways, while many states recommended a large number of roads of only regional importance. Greene in particular intended New York's system of only four major through routes as an example to the other states. Many states agreed in general with the scope of the system, but believed the Midwest to have added too many routes. The shield, with few modifications from the original sketch, was adopted at that meeting, as was the decision to number rather than name the routes. A preliminary numbering system, with eight major west-east and ten major north-south routes, was deferred to a numbering committee "without instructions".

After working with states to get their approval, the system had expanded to 75,800 miles (122,000 km), or 2.6% of total mileage, over 50% more than the plan approved August 4. The skeleton of the numbering plan was suggested on August 27 by Edwin Warley James of the BPR, who matched parity to direction, and laid out a rough grid. Major routes from the earlier map were assigned numbers ending in 0, 1 or 5 (5 was soon relegated to less-major status), and short connections received three-digit numbers based on the main highway they spurred from. The five-man committee met September 25, and submitted the final report to the Joint Board secretary on October 26. The board sent the report to the Secretary of Agriculture of October 30, and he approved it November 18, 1925.

These major transcontinental routes, along with the auto trails they roughly replaced, were as follows:
Note that 10, 60, and 90 only ran about two-thirds of the way across the country, while 11 and 60 ran significantly diagonally. The way in which US 60 violated two of the conventions would prove to be one of the major sticking points; US 60 eventually became the famous U.S. Route 66 in 1926. U.S. Route 101 actually continues east and then south to end at Olympia, Washington. The western terminus of U.S. Route 2 is now at Everett, Washington.

AASHO and the states fine-tune the plan: 1925–1926

The "final" U.S.
Highway plan as approved November 11, 1926

The new system was both praised and criticized by local newspapers, often depending on whether that city ended up on a major route. While the Lincoln Highway Association understood and supported the plan, partly because they were assured of getting the U.S. Route 30 designation as much as possible, most other trail associations lamented their obsolescence. At their January 14-15, 1926 meeting, AASHO was flooded with complaints.

In the Northeast, New York still wanted fewer routes, and Pennsylvania, which had been absent from the local meetings, convinced AASHO to add a dense network of routes, which had the effect of giving six routes termini along the state line. (Only U.S. Route 220 still ends near the state line, and now it ends at an intersection with future Interstate 86.) The indirect nature of U.S. Route 20, passing through Yellowstone National Parkmarker, led Idahomarker and Oregonmarker to request that U.S. Route 30 be swapped with US 20 to the Pacific coast.

Many local disputes centered on the choice between two roughly-equal parallel routes, often competing auto trails. At their January meeting, AASHO approved the first two of many split routes (specifically U.S. Route 40 between Manhattan, KSmarker and Limon, COmarker and U.S. Route 50 between Baldwin City, KSmarker and Garden City, KSmarker). In effect, each of the two routes received the same number, with a directional suffix indicating its relation to the other. These splits were initially shown in the log as — for instance — US 40 North and US 40 South, but were always posted as simply US 40N and US 40S.

The most heated argument, however, was the issue of US 60. The Joint Board had assigned that number to the Chicagomarker-Los Angelesmarker route, which ran east from Los Angeles to Oklahoma Citymarker, but then angled sharply to the northeast, running more north-south than west-east in Illinois. Kentuckymarker strongly objected to this, as it had been left off any of the major west-east routes, instead receiving the U.S. Route 62 designation. This, along with the part of U.S. Route 52 east of Ashland, KYmarker, was assigned the U.S. Route 60 number in January 1926, while US 62 was given to the Chicago-Los Angeles route, contingent on the approval of the states along the former US 60. But Missouri and Oklahoma did object — Missouri had already printed maps, and Oklahoma had prepared signs. A compromise was proposed, in which US 60 would split at Springfield, MOmarker into US 60E and US 60N, but both sides objected. The final solution resulted in the assignment of U.S. Route 66, which did not end in zero, but was still seen as a nice round number.

With 32 states already marking their routes, the plan was approved by AASHO on November 11, 1926. This plan included a number of directionally-split routes, several discontinuous routes (including U.S. Route 6, U.S. Route 19 and U.S. Route 50), and some termini at state lines. Major numbering changes had been made in Pennsylvania by the publishing of the first route log in April 1927, in order to align the routes to the auto trails, and U.S. Route 15 had been extended across Virginiamarker.

Criticism by the press

Much of the early criticism of the U.S. Highway system focused on the choice of numbers to designate the highways, rather than names. Some saw a numbered highway system as cold and heartless compared to the more colorful names of the auto trail systems. The New York Times wrote, "The traveler may shed tears as he drives the Lincoln Highway or dream dreams as he speeds over the Jefferson Highway, but how can he get a 'kick' out of 46, 55 or 33 or 21?" The writer Ernest McGaffey was quoted as saying, "Logarithms will take the place of legends, and 'hokum' for history.":

Before the Interstates: 1926–late 1950s

In 1934, the AASHO attempted to begin eliminating many of the split routes by removing them from the log, and designating one of each pair with a three-digit number, or as an alternate route (e.g. US-41 ALTERNATE), or with a totally new number, such as U.S. Route 37. In this case, US-37 was a highway that in the end, did not become a permanent U.S. route, and it was abandoned and returned to the states in 1952. The AASHO described its renumbering concept in the October 1934 issue of American Highways magazine:

When the U.S. numbered system was started in 1925, a few optional routings were established which were designated with a suffixed "North," "South," "East," or "West" after the number. However, this procedure has never been very popular with the motoring public in most states, and while there are still a few roads numbered in this manner, it was believed that they should be eliminated wherever possible, by the absorption of one of the optional routes into another route. However, in at least one state, Tennessee, this system has remained in widespread use. In Middle Tennessee, there can be found US-70N, US-70, and US-70S all running roughly parallel with each other for quite some distance before merging into the single US-70. Likewise, also in Middle Tennessee, there are US-31W and US-31E, and in East Tennessee, there are US-25W and US-25E, US-19W and US-19E, and also US-11W and US-11E, for considerable distances.

Wherever these optional routes are not of sufficient length for them to become a part of another numbered road, it is proposed to give the regular number to the older or shortest route, and the other route is to bear the same number with a standard strip above the shield carrying the word "Alternate." Some states accepted this approach, and marked the routes as requested. However, several states did not accept the different approach, including Californiamarker, Mississippimarker, Nebraskamarker, Oregonmarker, and Tennesseemarker. In 1952, the AASHO permanently recognized the splits into "parallel" highways of U.S. Route 11, U.S. Route 19, U.S. Route 25, U.S. Route 31, U.S. Route 45, U.S. Route 49, U.S. Route 73, and U.S. Route 99.

General expansion and the occasional elimination continued to occur through the years. One of the more interesting cases was the proposed extension of U.S. Route 97 to Alaskamarker along the Alaska Highway, canceled because the Yukon Territorymarker refused to renumber its section as 97.

For the most part, the U.S. Highways remained the primary method of inter-city travel; the main exceptions were toll roads such as the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Florida's Turnpikemarker and parkway routes such as the Merritt Parkway. Many of the first high-speed roads were U.S. Highways: the Gulf Freeway carried U.S. Route 75, the Pasadena Freeway carried U.S. Route 66, and the Pulaski Skywaymarker carried U.S. Route 1 and U.S. Route 9.

Post-Interstate era

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 appropriated funding for the Interstate Highway System, a vast network of freeways across the country. By 1957, AASHTO had decided to assign a new grid — numbered in the opposite ways from the U.S. Highway grid — to the new routes. Though the Interstate numbers were to supplement, rather than replace, the U.S. Highway numbers, in many cases (especially in the west) they were routed along the new Interstates. Major decommissioning began with Californiamarker's highway renumbering in 1964, and the removal in 1985 of most U.S. Route 66 signs is sometimes seen as the end of an era.

The last major U.S. route to be constructed was US-12 on the Idahomarker side of the Lolo Passmarker, completed in 1962. The last remaining segment of unpaved U.S. Highway was US-183 between the villages of Rose and Taylor, Nebraskamarker, which was paved in about 1967.

AASHTO has recognized that most American state highways are now just as good of symbols of good roads as the U.S. Routes once were. Thus it has acted to rationalize the system by eliminating all U.S. Routes located in just one state, and of less than 300 miles (480 km) in length "as rapidly as the State Highway Department and the Standing Committee on Highways of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials can reach agreement with reference thereto". (However, there are relatively few of these, in any case. Most states do not have any of them.) New additions to the system must serve more than one state and "substantially meet the current AASHTO design standards".

See also


  1. , revised October 6, 1996
  2. Toll U.S. Highways
  3. Ask the Rambler: What Is The Longest Road in the United States?
  4. Droz, Robert V. U.S. Highways : From US 1 to (US 830). URL accessed 02:55, 4 July 2006 (UTC).
  5. (Retained from August 10, 1973)
  6. Texas Department of Transportation, I-69/TTC (Northeast Texas to Mexico). Retrieved August 2007.
  7. Richard F. Weingroff, U.S. 11 Rouses Point, New York, to New Orleans, Louisiana
  8. Bannered U.S. Highways
  9. Google searches on for "United States Route", "U.S. Route", "United States Highway" and "U.S. Highway"
  10. DelDOT 2006 Traffic Count and Mileage Report
  11. Segment Descriptions for Highway 006 Colorado Department of Transportation
  12. Richard F. Weingroff, From Names to Numbers: The Origins of the U.S. Numbered Highway System
  13. Richard F. Weingroff, From Names to Numbers: The Origins of the U.S. Numbered Highway System
  14. Motor Sign Uniformity, New York Times, April 16, 1922
  15. Report of Joint Board on Interstate Highways, October 30, 1925, Approved by the Secretary of Agriculture, November 18, 1925
  16. United States System of Highways, November 11, 1926
  17. U.S. 22: The William Penn Highway
  18. United States Numbered Highways, American Highways (AASHO), April 1927
  19. McNichol, Dan. The Roads that Built America: The Incredible Story of the U.S. Interstate System. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2006. ISBN 1-4027-3468-9
  20. U.S. 11 - Rouses Point, New York, to New Orleans, Louisiana
  21. U.S. Highways: Divided (Split) Routes
  22. Alaska's U.S. Highway(s)
  23. Correspondence between the Division of Highways and American Association of State Highway Officials, transcribed at California Highways: State Route 66
  24. Rand McNally Road Atlas, 1946, p. 42: New York and Vicinity
  25. California Highways and Public Works, March-April 1964, Route Renumbering (PDF)
  26. U.S. Highways: North-South routes

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