Interstate 26 runs northerly from Charleston, South Carolina to a point just south of the Tennessee-Virginia State line near Kingsport. The route was twice extended from the original western terminus at Asheville, North Carolina, first in 2003 to I-81 and again in 2005 to U.S. 11W.
Interstate 26 begins in the Tri-Cities Region of Tennessee at U.S. 11W (West Stone Drive), which was the historic northern terminus of Interstate 181. I-26 overtook all of I-181 from Kingsport southward to Johnson City, and U.S. 23 from there to the North Carolina state line. This stretch includes a winding urban section through Johnson City, where U.S. 19W ties in from the northeast.
Angling southwest, I-26 & U.S. 19W-23 travel through a valley between the Buffalo and Little Mountains to Erwin. Beyond there, the freeway climbs in elevation from south of Rich Mountain along the 2003-opened alignment, to the Bald Mountains and Sams Gap across the state line. Advancing southward, I-26 lowers through the Walnut Mountains to join an older stretch of freeway near Mars Hill.
U.S. 19 ties in from Radford Gap, joining I-26 & U.S. 23 between Flat Creek and Weaverville, where U.S. 25 & 70 merge on from the northwest. The five-way overlap concludes near Downtown Asheville, with U.S. 25 & 70 departing for Interstate 240 east and U.S. 19 & 23 parting ways beyond the French Broad River (Bowen Bridge) to western reaches of the city.
Interstates 26 & 240 combine for 4.2 miles through West Asheville to meet Interstate 40 near Sand Hill. The exchange with I-40 was the original western terminus of I-26. South from there, I-26 travels an older freeway to Hendersonville and the Blue Ridge Mountains, with U.S. 25 rejoining the freeway between Fletcher and East Flat Rock.
Beyond the split with U.S. 25 south, I-26 spans the Green River along the Peter Guice Memorial Bridge at a height of 225 feet. The freeway then winds eastward to Howard Gap and Columbus before making its final approach to the Palmetto State at Landrum.
Interstate 26 follows a southeasterly path throughout South Carolina. The freeway initially straddles western reaches of the Spartanburg area through the Upstate. South from there, I-26 combines with the end of I-385 from Greenville to traverse Sumter National Forest on the drive to Columbia. Within the capital city area, I-26 expands to six lanes to the “Malfunction Junction” cloverleaf interchange with I-20. Interstate 126 spurs east from nearby to Downtown Columbia while I-26 stays to the west by Cayce and Columbia Metropolitan Airport (CAE).
Continuing southeast, Interstate 26 next meets the Orangeburg area before crossing paths with I-95 at a rural cloverleaf interchange. Pine forest gives way to suburbia as the route passes by Summerville en route to Goose Creek, North Charleston and the junction with Interstate 526. The final stretch winds I-26 through urban settings to U.S. 17 just north of Downtown Charleston.
Parallel U.S. Routes
Interstate 26 parallels several U.S. routes on its journey from the Tri-Cities area in Tennessee southeast to Charleston, as follows:
- Tri-Cities Area south to Asheville – U.S. 23
- Asheville south to Flat Rock – U.S. 25
- Flat Rock southeast to Spartanburg – U.S. 176
- Spartanburg south to Clinton – U.S. 221
- Clinton southeast to Columbia – U.S. 76
- Columbia southeast to Goose Creek – U.S. 176
- Goose Creek southeast to Charleston – U.S. 52 and 78
Interstate 26 Connector
The 1960s-built freeway for I-26 between Mars Hill and Rice Bend is substandard and remains signed as “Future Interstate 26” until upgrades are made. Additionally the interchange where Interstates 26 and 240 combine at Patton Avenue in Downtown Asheville involves sharp curves and single lane ramps. Adding to the traffic congestion here are the over capacity Smoky Park Bridges across the French Broad River. A new facility, the Interstate 26 Connector, will replace this stretch to meet 2025 forecast traffic counts.4
The I-26 Connector involves three separate segments: Section A involves upgrading 4.3 miles of Interstates 26 & 240 from the junction with I-40 to the Patton Avenue interchange, west of the French Broad River. Section B includes improvements to the interchange between Interstates 26-40-240 and the adjacent Brevard Road (NC 191) exit on I-40. Section C entails the construction of a new 2.6 alignment and bridge across the French Broad River for I-26 between the Patton Avenue interchange and the Future I-26 / U.S. 19-23-70 freeway south of Broadway Street.
The Interstate 26 Connector Project was delayed in April 2005 with the release of the state comprehensive transportation plan. This plan pushed the completion date of the Interstate 26 Connector Project back to 2012.6 Subsequent delays followed, further setting back the connector start date to 2024.
North End – Kingsport, TN
South End – Charleston, SC
Branch Routes – 2
Total Mileage – 304.64 (349*)
Tennessee – 31.00 (57*)
Cities – Johnson City
- Junctions –
North Carolina – 52.69 (71.25)
Cities – Asheville, Hendersonville
- Junctions –
South Carolina – 220.95
Cities – Spartanburg, Clinton, Newberry, Columbia, Orangeburg, Goose Creek, Charleston
- Junctions –
Source: December 31, 2018 Interstate Route Log and Finders List
* – estimate (TN figure based upon U.S. 23 mileposts)
The Route Log and Finders List retains the mileage for I-181 in Tennessee.
NC official mileage omits the segment of Future I-26.
I-26 Annual Average Daily Traffic (AADT)
|Location||Vehicles per day|
|Flag Pond, TN||8,440|
|Johnson City, TN||48,320|
Source: Traffic Flow Maps – Tennessee Roads and Streets 2004 (TDOT)
Interstate 26 was open between Exit 115 (U.S. 21-176-321) and Exit 72 (S.C. 121 / old S.C. 19) and from Exit 15 (U.S. 176) to Exit 5 (S.C. 11) by 1960.
A 37-mile stretch of Interstate 26 opened to traffic in South Carolina’s Low Country by late 1962. This extended the route southeast from U.S. 15 to U.S. 52 & 78 near North Charleston.
None of Interstate 26 appeared on the 1963 North Carolina Official Highway Map. The completed portions on the 1970 map appeared first on the 1967 edition. The last original segment was completed in 1976.9
$200 million in additional funding approved for the State Transportation Improvement Program in the North Carolina 2015-16 budget accelerated the time table for work on the I-26 Connector, between I-240 at Patton Avenue and West Asheville, to 2023. Work including the revamp of the I-26, I-40 and I-240 interchange is set for 2021 while expansion of I-240 through West Asheville is slated for construction after 2025.10
A milestone was reached May 2016 when NCDOT selected the preferred route for the I-26 Connector across the French Broad River. Alternative 4B of Section B takes I-26 & 240 on a new alignment across the French Broad River while improving its connections to Patton Avenue in West Asheville and the U.S. 19 & 23 freeway near Downtown. This alternative will also take through traffic off the Jeff Bowen Bridge, allowing for the addition of pedestrian and bicycle facilities on the span. Plans call for I-26 & 240 to leave Patton Avenue (Exit 3A) on a new alignment north and east across the French Broad River in a sweeping arc. I-26 will split from I-240 on a northeastward spoke while I-240 will curve back southeast to rejoin its current mainline at the existing U.S. 19 & 23 freeway exchange at Downtown. As a result of selecting this alternative, the I-26 & 240 concurrency will be extended by up to 0.7 miles and removed from the Bowen Bridge, which local residents sought for years to remove from the Interstate system.16 The Bowen Bridge will be reconfigured for local traffic between Asheville and West Asheville. Project costs are currently estimated at $332 million, with construction potentially starting in late 2023 or 202417 and lasting for at least three years.16
Construction for Interstate 26 in South Carolina was well underway in 1959. The 204-mile stretch from Landrum to Summerville was the longest continuous stretch of interstate highway under contract for construction at the time.11 Initial stretches completed in South Carolina included a short stretch from U.S. 176 near Dodd Hill, to S.C. 11 near Campobello. This section was finished in spring 1960. Coupled with the U.S. 276 freeway from Mauldin to Clinton, the remainder ofI-26 south from Spartanburg to Columbia, was opened by fall 1960.12
Lengthening of Interstate 26 north into the Tarheel State occurred by October 15, 1964, when a five-mile stretch opened to traffic between Campobello and Landrum, North Carolina.13
Interstate 26 was completed within the Palmetto State on February 25, 1969. Construction of the 221-mile route in S.C. took 12 years and cost $118 million.14 The entire length of Interstate 26 in South Carolina was formally dedicated at a ceremony in Columbia on March 10, 1969.8
The first section of I-26 opened in North Carolina was the 14-mile long bypass of Hendersonville. A ribbon cutting ceremony led by State Highway Commissioner Joseph Hunt was held at the interchange with U.S. 64 on the morning of January 12, 1967. The freeway opened from U.S. 176 at East Flat Rock (now Exit 7 of U.S. 25) north to Airport Road at Arden (Exit 40). This included the two-lane connector to U.S. 25 at Zirconia.15 Completion of the original section of I-26 between the state line and Asheville occurred on October 29, 1976 with the opening of the 7.5 mile segment between Columbus and Saluda. The 40-mile freeway in NC cost $54.1-million.14
Extension to Tennessee
First planned in 1987, the extension of Interstate 26 northward from Asheville to Interstates 81 & 181 near Fordtown, Tennessee allowed truck traffic that was banned on U.S. 19 & 23 a more efficient method to access I-81 to the north.1 The new nine-mile six-lane freeway opened from Mars Hill to the Tennessee state line on Tuesday August 5, 2003. Rising to a height of 4,000 feet above sea level,2 the final segment replaced a narrow 11-mile segment of U.S. 23 from Sams Gap southward to Mars Hill.1
Taking seven years to complete at a cost of $230 million, the Mars Hill to Sams Gap segment of Interstate 26 has no more than a six percent grade as compared to a nine percent grade on the old route of U.S. 23. The roadway features a 215-foot tall bridge, high enough in the mountains to where engineers installed a de-icing system that can be activated by telephone. Additionally a fog detection system with warning lights was incorporated into the route as are three runaway truck ramps. Eighty percent of the funds to build the I-26 extension was derived from the Appalachian Regional Commission.3
It was anticipated that in addition to providing a new truck route to I-81, that the extended Interstate 26 would enhance local economies of the counties between Asheville and the Tri-Cities Region of Tennessee. Projections initially forecast a tripling of the traffic count at the state line by the year 2010, with up to 16,000 vehicles per day (vpd) predicted. TDOT traffic counts in 2014 however totaled just 7,430 vpd, down from 8,774 vpd recorded in 2010.
Interstate 26 north of Asheville was designated a Scenic Byway by the state of North Carolina. It was the first such Interstate in the Tarheel State to receive this distinction. On a clear day it is reported that one can see Mount Mitchell, the tallest peak of the Appalachian Mountain chain at 6,684 feet. Two scenic overlooks and a welcome center at the state line were constructed to enhance travelers’ experience when taking I-26.3
Efforts from local leaders in the city of Kingsport from 2003 through 2005 sought to extend Interstate 26 further north to the Virginia state line near Morrison City. The local chamber of commerce and other officials lobbied their congressional delegation and state legislators successfully in an effort to boost the local economy. As announced by U.S. Senators Bill Frist (R-TN) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Representative Bill Jenkins (R-TN) as part of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) highway bill, the I-26 extension received official approval on August 2, 2005.7
The I-26 extension superseded an alternate plan to renumber the remainder of Interstate 181 as “Interstate 126.” However with Tennessee 126 routed nearby in Kingsport, that plan never came to fruition due to the potential confusion of two similar numbers placed so closely.2
East End – Charleston, South Carolina
West End – Kingsport, Tennessee
Historic Western Terminus (2003-07) – Colonial Heights, Tennessee
Historic Western Terminus (1976-2003) – Asheville, North Carolina
|Perspective from Interstate 26 & U.S. 74 west|
|One half mile ahead of the Interstates 40/240 junction on I-26 west. According to AARoads contributor Carter Buchanan, Interstate 26 shields were added to guide signs along I-240 east on Saturday July 19, 2003. Photo taken by Chris Patriarca (06/19/03).|
|Back to back off-ramps departed from the west end of Interstate 26 for I-40 east to Hickory and Statesville and I-40 west to the Great Smoky Mountains and Knoxville. The freeway mainline otherwise transitioned to Interstate 240 east to Downtown Asheville. Photo taken by Chris Patriarca (06/19/03).|
|Travelers bound for I-40 east to Biltmore Forest, east Asheville and Morganton departed from I-26 & U.S. 74 west. A diagrammatic sign outlined the forthcoming left-hand ramp (Exit 1B) for I-40 & U.S. 74 west to Canton and the Great Smoky Mountains Expressway. Photo taken by Chris Patriarca (06/19/03).|
|Interstate 26 west ended as Interstate 240 east commenced a 9.5 mile urban loop through Asheville. Sign changes made here initially added I-26 shields to overheads for I-240. The two share a wrong-way overlap to Downtown Asheville. Photo taken by Chris Patriarca (06/19/03).|
|Perspective from Interstates 26 east & 240 west|
|Interstates 240 and 40 converge west of the French Broad River and North Carolina 191 (Brevard Road). The area topography limited the exchange between the two and I-26 to utilize Brevard Road for movements from I-240 west to I-40 east and from I-40 west to I-240 east. Photo taken by Chris Patriarca (06/19/03).|
|Interstate 240 west expanded to three lanes beyond N.C. 191 for the upcoming separation of Exit 1A (now Exit 31B) for I-40 west and the I-26 eastbound beginning. Photo taken by Chris Patriarca (06/19/03).|
|Two lanes continued south from Interstate 240 west for I-26 east to Hendersonville and Spartanburg, South Carolina. The directional interchange between Interstates 26, 40, and 240 utilizes left-hand ramps in all directions. Photo taken by Chris Patriarca (06/19/03).|
|Perspective from Interstate 40 east|
|Interstate 40 & U.S. 74 concluded a 19-mile overlap east from near Clyde at the former west end of Interstate 26. This stretch of freeway was expanded to eight lanes between 2005 and 2008. Photo taken by Jeffrey Napier (01/02).|
|One half mile ahead of the split with U.S. 74 east for Interstate 26 east on I-40 at Sand Hill. U.S. 74 combines with I-26 for 37 miles to Columbus while the former route to Lake Lure and Rutherfordton was redesignated as U.S. 74A. Photo taken by Jeffrey Napier (01/02).|
|Exit 46A departed from I-40 east for I-26 to Spartanburg, South Carolina just prior to a left-hand ramp for the beginning of Interstate 240 east through Asheville. This configuration will remain unchanged until Section C of the I-26 Connector Project gets underway. Photo taken by Jeffrey Napier (01/02).|
|Perspective from Interstate 40 west|
|Interstate 40 passes through the Biltmore Estate on the approach to North Carolina 191 (Brevard Road) and the historic west end of Interstate 26 (Exit 46A). Photo taken by Jeffrey Napier (01/02).|
|Westbound travelers crossed the French Broad River one mile ahead of the left-hand ramp (Exit 46A) for I-26 & U.S. 74 east to Spartanburg, South Carolina. Photo taken by Jeffrey Napier (01/02).|
|A folded diamond interchange joined Interstate 40 with N.C. 191 (Brevard Road) north to I-240 and West Asheville. There is no direct access to I-240 east from I-40 west. Photo taken by Jeffrey Napier (01/02).|
|The on-ramp from N.C. 191 forms the second through lane for Interstate 40 & U.S. 74 west to Canton as the left-hand lane defaults onto Interstate 26 & U.S. 74 east to Hendersonville. Photo taken by Jeffrey Napier (01/02).|
- “Fab road: I-26 through Smokies.” Charlotte Observer, August 5, 2003.
- “Extending I-26 offers new opportunity.” Bristol Herald Courier, August 3, 2003.
- “Highway opens to traffic.” Asheville Citizen Times, August 5, 2003.
- I-26 Connector, Asheville, NC. NCDOT web site.
- Buchanan, Carter. “Re: I-26 and 485 Photos and More at All Things NC!” Online posting, Yahoo Groups – Southeast Roads and Transport, September 14, 2003.
- “DOT may delay I-26 Connector project,” Asheville Citizen-Times, April 8, 2005.
- “Frist, Alexander, Jenkins applaud new designation of I-26.” Press Release, August 2, 2005.
- Interstate 50th Anniversary Fact of the Day: “On March 10, 1969, a dedication ceremony was held in Charleston, South Carolina, to mark the completion of the 221-mile-long segment of I-26 in the Palmetto State. This Interstate highway, which was the second one to be completed in South Carolina, stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Appalachian Mountains. That route includes a corridor between Charleston and Columbia that has been important in the state’s history since colonial times.”
- NCRoads.com: I-26.
- “State accelerates I-26 Connector work, I-40 exit.” Citizen-Times (Asheville, NC), January 11, 2016.
- “Nation’s Longest Interstate Route.” Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, SC), November 11, 1959.
- “S.C. Too Fast With Highway, Hits Dead-End.” Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, SC), November 20, 1959.
- “Final Stretch Of I-26 In Spartanburg County.” Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, SC), October 15, 1964.
- “221-Mile I-26 Longest Of State’s Freeways.” Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, SC), February 28, 1979.
- “Interstate 26 Will Be Reality Thursday.” Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, SC), January 11, 1967.
- “Local backing helped make I-26 Connector route choice.” Citizen-Times (Asheville, NC), May 19, 2016.
- “Connector route taking traffic off Bowen Bridge picked.” Citizen-Times (Asheville, NC), May 19, 2016.
Page updated November 29, 2016.