An 8.40 mile segment of Interstate 181 remained posted from I-81 north to Kingsport, Tennessee until 2007.
Interstate 181 was the designation applied to the U.S. 23 freeway through the Tri-cities area of northeastern Tennessee. The winding freeway bisects Johnson City along an urban route as it leads north from U.S. 321 to Gray and Interstate 81. The northern section of I-181 took a more rural route across a series of ridges south of Kingsport and over eastern reaches of Bays and Holston River Mountains. The interstate portion of U.S. 23 ended at U.S. 11W at Fort Robinson in north Kingsport.
The U.S. 23 / Interstate 181 freeway was constructed in stages during the 1970s and 1980s as part of the project to construct Appalachian Development Corridor B (U.S. 23). I-181 was established along the route by AASHTO on June 9, 1986.
With the extension of Interstate 26 north from Asheville on August 5, 2003, the section of Interstate 181 south of I-81 was eliminated. This reduced the interstate spur from 23.85 miles to 8.40 miles between I-81 and U.S. 11W (West Stone Drive). A rejected proposal in June 2003 also called for renumbering what was left of I-181 as new Interstate 126.
With proponents cited the potential to boost area economic development, subsequent lobbying and legislative actions involved designating the remainder of Interstate 181 as a longer Interstate 26. These efforts came to fruition on August 2, 2005 with an announcement by U.S. Senators Bill Frist (R-TN) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Representative Bill Jenkins (R-TN) of the passing of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) highway bill.1
Signs for Interstate 181 were completely removed in March 2007, with the remnant mileage incorporated into Interstate 26.2 Exit numbers were renumbered so that the sequence counted upwards as one traveled south from the Virginia state line instead of the previous scheme using the mileage of U.S. 23 north from the Tar Heel State.