I-26 highlighted in red
|Length||305.62 mi (491.85 km)|
|West end||/ / / in Kingsport, TN|
|East end||in Charleston, SC|
|States||Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina|
Interstate 26 (I-26) is a nominally east-west (but physically more northwest-southeast diagonal) main route of the Interstate Highway System in the Southeastern United States. I-26 runs from the junction of U.S. Route 11W and U.S. Route 23 in Kingsport, Tennessee, generally southeastward to U.S. Route 17 in Charleston, South Carolina. The portion from Mars Hill, North Carolina, east (compass south) to Interstate 240 in Asheville, North Carolina, has signs indicating FUTURE I-26 because the highway does not yet meet all of the Interstate Highway standards. A short realignment as an improvement in the freeway was also planned in Asheville, but has been postponed indefinitely due to North Carolina's budget shortfalls.
Northwards from Kingsport, US 23 continues north to Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Corridor B of the Appalachian Development Highway System, and beyond to Columbus, as the Corridor C. In conjunction with the Columbus-Toledo, Ohio corridor formed by Interstate 75, US 23, and State Route 15, I-26 forms part of a mostly high-speed four-or-more-lane highway from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Coast at Charleston, South Carolina. There are no official plans for extensions north of Kingsport, Tennessee.
I-26 is a diagonal Interstate Highway, which runs northwest/southeast. (Most of the other highway routes in this area are odd-numbered and run northeast/southwest.) The extension past Asheville is mostly north-south. Where I-26 crosses the French Broad River in Asheville at the Jeffrey Bowen Bridge (previously known as the Smoky Park Bridge), the highway runs in opposite directions from its designations. (I-26 West actually goes east. I-26 is concurrent with I-240, so that I-240 East and I-26 West are the same route.) When the extension was made in 2003, the exit numbers in North Carolina were increased by 31 to reflect the new mileage. The part that it shares with I-240 is signed as both I-240 and I-26, but follows the I-240 exit numbering pattern.
I-26 has signs with an extra FUTURE sign above (and in the same style as) the EAST and WEST signs from Asheville north to Mars Hill, North Carolina, because the older U.S. Route 23 freeway does not yet meet all of the Interstate Highway standards. The road shoulders remain substandard or nonexistent along short sections of the route, and also, a rebuilding is planned in Asheville to avoid some tight interchanges.
The exit numbers in Tennessee were formerly numbered "backwards"--increasing from "east" (physically south) to "west" (physically north)--because this highway was formerly signed north-south as U.S. Route 23 (and Interstate 181). Although this is consistent with the south-to-north numbering conventions, this exit numbering was changed on all 284 signs along I-26 to be consistent with the rest of the east-to-west-numbered highway in March 2007. The remaining I-181 signs north of I-81 were also replaced with I-26 signs at that time.
For its entire length in Tennessee, I-26 shares the route with U.S. Route 23. The route is named the James H. Quillen Parkway, after Jimmy Quillen, a past member of the U.S. House of Representatives for Tennessee.
In Tennessee, US 23 runs south from the Virginia state line for 1 mile (1.6 km) to Kingsport. I-26 begins at the junction of US 23 with U.S. Route 11W (which is locally named Stone Drive), northwest of the city. After about 1,000 yards (910 m), I-26 crosses the South Fork Holston River before swinging around to a generally south-east path through Sullivan County. It reaches its major interchange with Interstate 81 at exit 8A, southwest of Colonial Heights.
Shortly after entering Washington County, it reaches the northwest part of Johnson City, and also serves as a local transit route as it makes its way around the north and eastern parts of the city. It begins to travel through more obviously mountainous terrain before turning to travel in a south direction. Entering Carter County briefly, it passes exit 27 before entering the Cherokee National Forest and Unicoi County. From this point, it passes through part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, first the Unaka Range and later, as it passes Erwin, Tennessee between exits 34 and 40, the Bald Mountains. It meets the Nolichucky River just after mile marker 38 and travels along its southeast bank before crossing it immediately before exit 40.
The remainder of I-26 in Tennessee passes through a sparsely populated area, at elevations of above 1,800 feet (550 m), before reaching the North Carolina state line.
About 20 miles (32 km) beyond Spartanburg one reaches the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. After crossing the border into Polk County, I-26 intersects with U.S. Route 74, a limited-access freeway near Columbus, and it heads up a 6% grade for the next three miles through Howard Gap. Then it passes over the highest bridge in North Carolina, the Peter Guice Memorial Bridge, 225 feet (69 m) above the Green River between Saluda and Flat Rock in Henderson County, and it crosses the Eastern Continental Divide at an elevation of 2,130 feet (650 m), having climbed from an elevation of around 1,100 feet (340 m) at the US 74 interchange. The land flattens substantially after entering the French Broad River drainage basin from Flat Rock to Hendersonville, Fletcher, and Arden.
I-26 has a major interchange with Interstate 40 in Asheville. After 3 miles (4.8 km), U.S. Route 23 joins I-26 west of Asheville and follows it into Tennessee. The two interstates cross the French Broad River then, having shared the highway for 4.5 miles (7.2 km), immediately part company. As I-240 continues to swing round to the north and east of Asheville, I-26 turns north towards Weaverville and Mars Hill. It enters first the Blue Ridge and then the Walnut Mountains and Bald Mountains of the Appalachian range, passing through the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests as it does so.
As I-26 crosses the Bald Mountains near the North Carolina/Tennessee state line, it travels through a relatively high-elevation rural area. At Buckner Gap, I-26 reaches 3,370 feet (1,030 m). in elevation. It reaches its highest elevation of 3,760 feet (1,150 m) at Sam's Gap. For 2 miles (3.2 km) each side of the state line, its elevation is at least 3,000 feet (910 m).
Beginning in the city of Charleston, I-26 travels northwesterly over flat plains with little urbanization past Summerville. After the junction with I-95 just inside of Orangeburg County, the terrain becomes somewhat hilly. Orangeburg is the first major stop outside Charleston with several exits bearing this name. Between Orangeburg and the junction with Interstate 77 just outside Cayce the highway goes up and down a few very long hills averaging about 100 feet (30 m). Beyond Interstate 77 is the Columbia metropolitan area with lodging, dining, and shopping possibilities. This metropolitan area ends mostly after exit 101, past which the terrain becomes somewhat hilly once again. The next major city is Newberry. Later, I-26 splits off north toward Spartanburg, where I-26 has a junction with the Interstate 85 corridor, which has a significant amount of international business and manufacturing. The 11-mile (18 km) section of I-26 from Interstate 126 in Columbia to US 176 at exit 97 was the first section of the highway to open up to traffic (on September 7, 1960).
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Interstate 181 (I-181) was established in December 1985 as an interstate designation of US-23, which was already built to interstate standards in the 1970s. I-181 traversed from US-321/SR-67, in Johnson City, to US-11W/SR-1, in Kingsport, totaling 23.85 miles (38.38 km). US-23 continued on both directions as interstate grade to the Virginia line, to the north, and 15 miles (24 km) south to Erwin; by 1992, US-23 was upgraded to interstate grade south to Sam's Gap, at the North Carolina line. All exit numbers were based on US-23 mileage. On August 5, 2003, after completion of a 9-mile (14 km) section completed in North Carolina, I-26 was extended west into Tennessee, replacing I-181 from Johnson City to I-81; north of I-81, I-181 continued into Kingsport. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) initially ruled against an extension of Interstate 26 (as the number) along the remainder of I-181 to Kingsport, since that would give a main route Interstate Highway (I-26) a so-called "stub end," not connecting to any other Interstate highway, to an international border, or to a seacoast. The numerical extension was in 2005 enacted by the effect of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, signed into law on August 10, 2005. In March 2007, I-181 was officially decommissioned, as all signs and exit numbers were changed-over to I-26's designation.