Construction of Interstate 80 South, later known as Interstate 76, began in 1958 and reflected the desire for easier transportation across the state of Colorado. The 184-mile highway connects Denver to western Nebraska and represents a vital link between two of the longest interstates in the nation, Interstate 70 and Interstate 80. Mostly completed in the 1960s, the road was later renamed Interstate 76 to honor the nation’s bicentennial and Colorado’s centennial. The highway not only provides travelers with an efficient route between Colorado and Nebraska, but also allows for the transportation of millions of dollars’ worth of freight each year.
National System of Interstate and Defense Highways
In 1956 Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which encapsulated President Eisenhower’s vision of an efficient national highway system. This legislation provided billions of dollars of funding to complete the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, which would consist of four-lane highways with no intersections to keep travelers moving. The intention was to construct thousands of miles of connected highways that would greatly ease travel across the country. The federal government would shoulder 90 percent of the cost of construction.
Interstate 76 represented a good fit for these funds because it would improve the connection between Colorado and Nebraska, enhancing commerce between the two states and beyond. It was also an opportunity to connect the eastern part of the state to metro Denver.
The oldest piece of Interstate 76 is the thirty-six-mile stretch located between the Nebraska state line and Crook, Colorado. By the end of 1966, an additional 137 miles of roadway was completed as part of eight separate construction projects, connecting Interstate 76 to US 85 in Denver. It took another two years to complete the piece connecting the US 85 junction with Interstate 25.
After construction of the majority of the Colorado portion of the highway was complete, Colorado and Nebraska entered into a multi-million-dollar agreement to improve the road between Julesburg and the Nebraska state line. By 1968, the Rocky Mountain News estimated, the interstate brought $278 million per year into Colorado and 81 percent of travelers on the new highway stopped in Colorado.
The renaming of the road in 1975–76 was for the practical purpose of removing the letter “S” from the name of I-80 S, a policy implemented across the country. The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) took advantage of this opportunity to name the highway after the nation’s bicentennial and Colorado’s centennial. The state replaced 488 signs along the route to display the new name for the interstate.
After its renaming, the road was extended beyond its initial terminus at Interstate 25 to connect all the way to Interstate 70. In 1985 construction connected Wadsworth and Sheridan Boulevards. In 1989 the section between Federal Boulevard and Pecos Street opened. This project included the construction of twelve bridges and cost $22.4 million. A later project closed the gap between Pecos and I-25. The state proclaimed the highway complete in 1993.
Since I-76 was completed, CDOT has invested more than $100 million in road replacement projects along the route. As of 2021, the most recent and most expensive project rebuilt the interchange at 120th Avenue and cost approximately $45 million.
I-76 created advantages for larger communities on its route, like Sterling, Brush, and Fort Morgan. These places capitalized on their new connection to the Denver metro area and tried to lure people to live and work in their communities. During the 1970s, for instance, the Sterling Chamber of Commerce president emphasized that Sterling was only three hours from the ski slopes but was a much healthier place to raise a family than Denver.
As happened with the railroads in the late nineteenth century, some smaller communities suffered from being farther from the highway route. This was not just a local issue, but a national one. Although the Federal-Aid Act was initially popular, the response shifted once people realized that it would siphon auto traffic from older highways and the communities that relied on them. With the construction of Interstate 76, communities bypassed by the highway lost the economic benefit of tourism dollars.
As with all interstate highways, improvements must continue to keep Interstate 76 from crumbling. In 2020 CDOT repaired bridges, replaced signage, and resurfaced several miles of the interstate near Brush and Fort Morgan. Work on this section, including repaving, continued into 2021. The I-25 and I-76 junction in Denver is especially prone to bottlenecks, though it is unclear whether the state will address it. As the Denver metro area around it has grown exponentially, Interstate 76 continues to provide a direct route of travel for tourists and freight and will require constant maintenance to meet the challenges of the future.