US-27 is the latest mainline U.S. Highway to be decommissioned within Michigan, the sixth of six. However, unlike many of the other decommissioned U.S. Highways, US-27 had not been superceded by an Interstate (or other route designation) over much or all of its length. Indeed, it was US-27's own "child route," US-127, which replaced much of it upon decommissioning!
US-27 is a route that, can be said, developed later in its life and became more important as time went on. Similar to its westerly and easterly U.S. route neighbors, US-131 and US-23, US-27 was originally designated as a somewhat minor route up the middle of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, with the only major city it traversed being the state capital of Lansing. As an illustration, the Michigan State Highway Department paved M-78, the route connecting Lansing with Battle Creek, much earlier than it did US-27 south of Charlotte through Marshall and Coldwater.
While other U.S. highways across Michigan received much more attention early on, like US-12 (the Detroit-Chicago route), US-112 (the "other" Detroit-Chicago route via the Great Sauk Trail), US-10 (the Detroit-Flint-Saginaw route), US-25 (the Toledo-Detroit-Port Huron route) and US-16 (the Detroit-Lansing-Grand Rapids route) and correspondingly received more attention, US-27 developed over the decades into a major north-south route through the state. So much so that the MDSH petitioned to AASHO in the late 1950s to remove the proposed Kalamazoo-to-South Bend Interstate and replace it with a northerly extension of I-69 leading northerly from Fort Wayne. This I-69 extension would roughly follow the path of US-27 past Coldwater to Marshall. Soon after, an Interstate extension from Marshall via Charlotte to Lansing was granted and even more of the US-27 corridor found itself on the Interstate system.
From Lansing northerly, US-27 had been improved in the late-1940s and early-50s first to St Johns then on to Ithaca as a divided highway. While this was a great improvement, by the time the upgrades got to Ithaca , the state decided to push the improvements one step further and upgrade the route to full freeway standards. Thus, from Ithaca northerly past Alma & St Louis, Mount Pleasant, Clare, Houghton Lake and Higgins Lake, US-27 was built to the new Interstate standards, although a few crossroads remained for a few years until they were removed in the early 1960s.
With the coming of the Interstates, however, the northern portion of US-27 was unceremoniously "lopped off" in 1961. The new I-75 freeway replaced the former two-lane routing of US-27 from Grayling through Gaylord and Indian River and on up to the Straits of Mackinac. Most of the former route from Grayling to Indian River was turned back to local control, while the former US-27 between Indian River and Cheboygan was redesignated as M-27. However, even with the "decommissioning" of US-27 north of Grayling, it is clear the entire corridor was becoming a major traffic conduit.
US-27 remained in its shortened state for about forty years while additional upgrades to its route were made. The final segment of freeway between Charlotte and Lansing was completed in 1992 and the long-awaited "St Johns Bypass" freeway opened in segments in 1995, 1996 and 1998, extending the freeway from the Indiana state line to north of St Johns, leaving only about 16 miles of non-freeway between there and Ithaca.
But the US-27 designation was not destined to remain long enough to see these last 16 miles converted to full freeway standards. While the much appreciated M-57 interchange upgrades were being completed in 2000, thus removing the last traffic signal on US-27 in Michigan, the Michigan Department of Transportation was in the second year of a three-year long process to completely remove the US-27 designation from the state.
An attempt to completely decommission US-27 in Michigan was made by the Michigan Dept of State Highways & Transportation on June 25, 1974 when it, along with the Indiana State Highway Commission, applied to the AASHTO U.S. Route Numbering Subcommittee to have US-27 truncated at I-69 on the north side of Fort Wayne, Indiana. That petition was denied, assumedly because no mentioned had been made by Michigan as to what was to become of the existing route of US-27 from DeWitt northerly to I-75 near Grayling. It took 17 years before a second petition was made to the AASHTO subcommittee on October 11, 1991 to decommission US-27 between Fort Wayne and Lansing, although that petition was also denied as no replacement designation for the route north of Lansing was indicated and AASHTO was unwilling to allow for a discontinuous US-27 to exist (Miami–Fort Wayne and Lansing–Grayling). Eight years later, MDOT tried for a third time, this time first requesting that the US-127 designation replace US-27 from Lansing northerly to Grayling immediately followed by a second request to truncate US-27 from Lansing back to the Indiana state line. (InDOT cooperated and similarly requested a removal of the US-27 designation from I-69 from the Michigan state line southerly to Fort Wayne.) These requests were granted on April 16, 1999. It would take three more years, however, for the changes to actually take place in the field.
During June and July of 2001, MDOT removed the majority of the US-27 route markers from the route of I-69 from the Indiana state line northerly to the I-69, US-27 & US-127 junction near De Witt, north of Lansing. InDOT did likewise on their portion of decommissioned US-27 between Fort Wayne and the state line. For the moment, US-27 was effectively a two-part discontinuous route running from Miami, Florida to Fort Wayne, Indiana and from Lansing to Grayling. The following year in May 2002, MDOT crews began the complicated process of swapping out every US-27 route marker between Lansing and Grayling and replacing them with US-127 signs. It is estimated well over 500 individual signs needed to be replaced in this process.
Oddly enough, this process occurred at different times depending on the MDOT region conducting the work. In the Bay and North regions (Gratiot, Isabella, Clare, Roscommon and Crawford Counties ), the US-27/US-127 swap-out only took a couple weeks in May and was done as quickly as possible. On the other hand, the University Region (Clinton Co) took much longer—nearly the entire summer—to complete the changeover. Thus, for people attempting to follow the route of US-127 indicated on new road maps, the highway "magically" changed route designations near De Witt to "US-27" and remained as such until south of M-57 where it "magically" became US-127 again!
While few vocal complaints were heard, the need for such a drastic route numbering change and the benefits, if any, derived from the changes, has been questioned. A variety of other concepts have been offered, including:
- Simply "hiding" the US-27 designation along I-69 between Fort Wayne and Lansing. Several states do this, either using the "Minnesota method" whereby a few freeway signs are erected in the appropriate locations instructing motorists "US-27 follow I-69"; or simply ignoring the designation within the I-69 concurrency, such as Utah does.
- Rerouting US-27 off the I-69 corridor between Tekonsha and Lansing by relocating US-27 onto the route of M-60 between Tekonsha and Jackson, then utilizing the route of US-127 from Jackson to Lansing.
- Rerouting US-27 off the I-69 corridor between Fort Wayne, Indiana and Lansing by relocating US-27 onto the route of US-24 between Fort Wayne and Cecil, Ohio, then utilizing the route of US-127 from Cecil to Lansing.
- Coordinating between the states of Michigan, Indiana and Ohio to completely "swap" the designations of US-27 and US-127 north of Cincinnati.