The WILLOW FREEWAY was first proposed in 1927 as part of a T-shaped freeway system for the city, with a horizontal freeway running east and west along the city's lakefront (the future MEMORIAL SHOREWAY), and the vertical Willow Freeway, running from downtown south to the old Willow Station of the B&O Railroad in INDEPENDENCE. In May 1935 planning for the Willow Freeway began and WPA funds were committed to the project; construction commenced in 1938, with the building of the first "cloverleaf" interchange in the state. The cloverleaf, completed 21 Oct. 1940 at a cost of $1.175 million, brought the new highway (Rt. 21) over Brookpark/Schaaf/Granger roads (Rt. 17) and provided an all-direction transfer between the two road systems. Voters had approved $4.5 million in taxes for the Willow Freeway in May 1939 to pay for land acquisition and freeway construction from the cloverleaf north into downtown Cleveland. The original plans called for the freeway to end near the intersection of Ontario St. and Huron Rd. Two factors slowed progress of the highway's construction. There was a dispute over its exact route, and the city hesitated to secure the land needed until the route was finalized. World War II then intervened and halted work from Dec. 1941-Nov. 1946.

When construction resumed, the freeway was scheduled to end at Dalton Ave., where it would funnel traffic onto E. 49th St. and then on to Broadway Ave. to downtown. In 1948, however, it was decided to continue construction north to Broadway, and work began in Feb. 1950. By this time the INNERBELT FREEWAY was being planned, and the Willow Freeway was extended, across KINGSBURY RUN to the Innerbelt. Construction on this segment began in 1962. It opened on 17 Jan. 1966. As the interstate highway system developed, the existing Willow Freeway was incorporated into plans for I-77, projected to run from Cleveland south to Charlotte, NC. This plan required that the original 4 lanes be expanded to 6 to meet interstate standards; widening the 7 miles of freeway from E. 30th St. to Canal Rd. was completed in Nov. 1973 at a cost of $8.2 million. The last stretch of I-77 work in the county carried the renovated Willow across the valley by bridge to connect with the interstate highway. This last segment opened 29 Oct. 1975, making the original Willow Freeway, built at a cost of $15 million, the northernmost link of a 168-mile trans-Ohio superhighway built at a cost of $320 million.

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