GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The interstate highway designation “I-296” may be the best-kept secret on West Michigan’s freeway system, and there’s no plan to change that.
I-296 is the only portion of US-131 that is assigned the status of both U.S. highway and interstate, running from where US-131 intersects I-96 to the interchange at I-196.
That’s it. Three-and-a-half miles.
When that portion of US-131 was opened in December 1962, it was officially US-131 and I-296.
“I’m not sure why they named it 296, because there are enough ‘96s’ in the area,” says John Richard at the Grand Region office of the Michigan Department of Transportation. But in 1979, officials at MDOT petitioned federal highway authorities for permission to remove references to I-296 both on signs and on public maps.
“They decided that was confusing to motorists, so they took away the signage,” says Richard, “so now it just seems like it’s 131 between 96 and 196, but, technically, it is I-296.”
The paper trail Richard could find for us is thin, but in letters in 1979 MDOT officials pointed out the possibility of confusing motorists, and the feds agreed.
Richard told us there are no signs in MDOT’s possession preserved for posterity.
At just under 3.5 miles, this interstate highway is not the shortest in the country. I-296 is not even the shortest interstate in Michigan: That honor goes to I-375 in downtown Detroit, which is just over a mile long.
The I-296 designation is hard -- but not impossible -- to find on maps. Publicly available maps, such as Google Maps and Mapquest, don’t show it. Neither do published paper maps you can buy. But you can find I-296 on government web sites.
(Historical images courtesy of Grand Rapids Public Library, Grand Rapids History and Special Collections)