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 I-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.
I-26 and I-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 course from the Tri-Cities area in Tennessee southeast to Charleston:
- 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 U.S. 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 I-26 and I-240 combine at Patton Avenue in Downtown Asheville utilizes 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, was proposed to replace this stretch to meet 2025 forecast traffic counts.4
The I-26 Connector involves three separate segments: Section A will upgrade 4.3 miles of I-26/240 from the exchange with I-40 to the Patton Avenue interchange, west of the French Broad River. Section B includes improvements to the interchange between I-26/40/240 and the adjacent Brevard Road (NC 191) exit on I-40. Section C comprises 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|
|Rice Bend, TN||9,812|
|Johnson City, TN||70,618|
Source: 2019 AADT – TDOT Traffic Maps
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 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
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
East End – Charleston, South Carolina
East End Throwback
I-26 east ended as two-lane ramps partitioned for U.S. 17 (Septima Clark Expressway) south. Adjacent ramps connected with King Street (U.S. 78 north) and Meeting Street (U.S. 52 north). Both ramps remain in use, though Exit 221B serves only Meeting Street as Septima Clark Expressway east was dismantled along with Silas Pearman Bridge. Photo taken 01/18/04.
U.S. 17 lowered from the John C. Grace Bridge to grade level briefly before elevating again above Meeting Street (U.S. 52 north), I-26 and a Norfolk Southern Railroad line. A southbound off-ramp departed for Meeting Street prior to the exchange with I-26 west. Photo taken by Chris Patriarca (06/10/03).
Meeting Street at
Meeting Street north at the former interchange complex with I-26 west and U.S. 17. The northbound ramp for U.S. 17 passed under the Septima Clark Expressway viaduct before joining the left side of the Silas Pearman Bridge. A left-turn restriction at forthcoming Lee Street required drivers on Meeting Street north to make a jug handle type movement to access I-26 west. Photo taken by Chris Patriarca (06/13/03).
West End – Kingsport, Tennessee
West North at
Interstate 26 west / U.S. 23 south drop over 300 feet in elevation from Holston River Mountain to span the South Fork of the Holston River. A lengthy viaduct takes motorists north to U.S. 11W (West Stone Drive). Photos 10/02/10 and by Peter Johnson on 06/19/19.
Historic Western Terminus (2003-07) – Colonial Heights, Tennessee
One mile ahead of the former shared end point of I-26 west and I-181 south on I-81 north at Tri-Cities Crossing (Exit 56). Photo taken by Carter Buchanan (08/08/04).
Guide signs at the exchange joining I-81 with I-181/U.S. 23 were amended with Interstate 26 shields in 2003. Subsequent sign replacements switched Asheville for Johnson City. Photo taken 08/23/03.
Historic Western Terminus (1976-2003) – Asheville, North Carolina
Interstate 26 shields were added to guide signs at the exchange with I-40 and I-240 east at Asheville on Saturday July 19, 2003. Photo taken by Chris Patriarca (06/19/03).
- “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 May 13, 2020.