An in depth look at all the alternatives for the I-26 Connector Project, including several options for the French Broad River crossing and exchange with I-240.
$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 on 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 I-81 and I-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 traveler’s experience when taking I-26.3
The Sams Gap Scenic Overlook along Interstate 26 during peak fall foliage season. The freeway winds north toward Little and Flint Mountains in this scene. 10/25/15
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 State Route 126 routed nearby in Kingsport, that plan never came to fruition due to the potential confusion of two similar numbers placed so closely.2