Interstate 181 Tennessee

Interstate 181 Tennessee
History
North End
South End
Tennessee Tri Cities Region Map

An 8.40 mile long segment of Interstate 181 remained posted from I-81 north to Kingsport, Tennessee until 2007.

Overview

Interstate 181 overlaid U.S. 23 along a freeway stretching northwest through the Tri-cities area in northeastern Tennessee. I-181 commenced north along U.S. 23 at the exchange with U.S. 321/SR 67 near Roan Hill in Johnson City. Passing between Downtown and the Tannery Knobs, the freeway advanced northward through the city. Crossing Indian Ridge, I-181/U.S. 23 continued northwest to the unincorporated community of Gray and Interstate 81 in Sullivan County.

The northern section of I-181 took a more rural course between Birdwell and Buckaloo Ridges to Rock Springs Valley. Running between Easley Ridge and Pine Hill, I-181/U.S. 23 entered south Kingsport. Continuing along the west side of the city, I-181 traversed eastern reaches of Bays and Holston River Mountains into a broad valley fed by the Holston River South Flork. The interstate portion of U.S. 23 concluded at the exchange with U.S. 11W at Fort Robinson in north Kingsport.

History

The freeway along U.S. 23 and eventually Interstate 181 was constructed in stages during the 1970s and 1980s as part of the project to construct Appalachian Development Corridor B. The route between SR 67 in Johnson City and I-81 was added to the Interstate system under U.S.C. 139(a) on December 4, 1985. I-181 was formally approved by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) along a 23.8 mile long segment of U.S. 23 on June 10, 1986:

This section of APD Corridor B is functionally classified as a principal arterial highway and has recently been constructed as a fully access controlled freeway equivalent to Interstate standards.

The route is a logical addition to the System permitting direct Interstate routing from Johnson City and Kingsport, which are urbanized areas of over 50,000 population, to I-81.

Furthermore the Interstate 181 designation did not result in Federal financial responsibility based upon current legislation at the time. Only those routes designated under 23 U.S.C. 139(a) prior to March 9, 1984 were eligible for Interstate 4R funding.

U.S. 23 south from I-181 at U.S. 321/SR 67 in Johnson City to the North Carolina state line at Sams Gap was designated a future part of the Interstate System pursuant to the provisions of 23 U.SC. 139(b) on January 17, 1995. The Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) initially requested on March 10, 2003 the renumbering Interstate 181 south from I-81 to Johnson City as part of a northern extension of Interstate 26 from Asheville, North Carolina. This request was amended to eliminate all of I-181 in the Tri-Cities in favor of I-26. The application cited eliminating confusing exit numbers and potential problems with a local State Route being designated as I-26. The AASHTO Special Committee on Route Numbering however disapproved the application redesignating I-181 to Kingsport as part of I-26 on May 31, 2003 because it did not have concurrence from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

A separate proposal also outlined renumbering I-181 north from I-26/81 as new Interstate 126. It was rejected in June 2003. Interstate 26 became official on August 5, 2003, and the section of Interstate 181 south of I-81 eliminated. This reduced I-181 from 23.85 miles in length to 8.40 miles between I-81 and U.S. 11W (W Stone Drive).

With proponents citing the potential to boost area economic development, subsequent lobbying and legislative actions continued advocating for renumbering the remainder of I-181 as part of 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 increased southward from the Virginia state line instead of the previous scheme using the mileage of U.S. 23 north from the Tar Heel State.

Route Information

  • North End – Kingsport, TN

  • South End – Johnson City, TN

  • Mileage – 23.85

  • Cities – Kingsport, Johnson City

  • JunctionsI-26 I-81

Source: October 31, 2002 Interstate Route Log and Finders List
I-181 was truncated to 8.40 miles before being removed completely. This figure was referenced until the December 31, 2018 Interstate Route Log and Finders List

Northeastern Ternnessee - 1973
Northeastern Tennessee – 1973 Tennessee Official Highway Map

The freeway linking Johnson City and Kingsport in the Tri-Cities Area was initially designated Tennessee State Route 137. It ran north to what is now SR 126 at Exit 4.

Johnson City, TN - 1976
Johnson City – 1976 Tennessee Official Highway Map

The freeway along SR 137 was extended southward from U.S. 11E (Roan Street) to Market Street by Downtown Johnson City between 1973 and 1976. U.S. 19W/23 shifted onto the freeway by 1978.

Northeastern Tennessee - 1987
Interstate 181 debuted on the Rand McNally North American Road Atlas in the 1987 edition.

North End US 11W US 23 – Kingsport, Tennessee

I-181 US 23 North at US 11W

I-181/US 23 north at Holston River Mountain - Kingsport, TN

The last confirming marker for Interstate 181 stood along U.S. 23 northbound by Holston River Mountain in Kingsport. 08/23/03

I-181/US 23 north at US 11W - Kingsport, TN

I-181/U.S. 23 lowered from the north slope of Holston River Mountain onto a long viaduct spanning the South Fork of the Holston River. Exit 55 followed with U.S. 11W (W Stone Drive) at the north end of I-181. 08/23/03

I-181/US 23 north at US 11W - Kingsport, TN

U.S. 23 continues northeast from the six-ramp parclo interchange with U.S. 11W (W Stone Drive) to Morrison City at Carter Valley and across Clinch Mountain into Gate City, Virginia. U.S. 11W comprises an arterial route east around Kingsport to Bristol. 08/23/03

US 23 South at I-181 US 11W

US 23 south at I-181/US 11W - Kingsport, TN

U.S. 23 shifts west from its former alignment along SR 36 at Morrison City and traverses Bell Ridge ahead of U.S. 11W (W Stone Drive) and the north end of Interstate 181. Photo by Chris Patriarca (04/03).

US 23 south at I-181/US 11W - Kingsport, TN

Old Exit 55 departed from U.S. 23 south for U.S. 11W (W Stone Drive) at Fort Robinson. The first signs acknowledging I-181 were not posted until the viaduct across the South Fork of the Holston River and Long Island. Photo by Chris Patriarca (04/03).

US 11W South at I-181 US 23

US 11W south at I-181/US 23 - Kingsport, TN

U.S. 11W (W Stone Drive) south at the loop ramp for Interstate 181 and U.S. 23 south to Johnson City. U.S. 11W continues southwest 85 miles to Knoxville. Photo by Chris Patriarca (04/03).

South End 2003-05 – I-26 I-81 US 23 – Kingsport / Colonial Heights, Tennessee

I-81 North at I-181 US 23

I-81 north at I-181/US 23 - Kingsport, TN

An auxiliary lane accompanied I-81 north from the Fordtown Road on-ramp to the cloverleaf interchange (Exit 57) with I-181/U.S. 23. Photo by Chris Patriarca (04/03).

I-81 north at I-181/US 23 - Kingsport, TN

Exit 57A departed from Interstate 81 north for I-181/U.S. 23 south to Johnson City. When I-26 was completed at Sams Gap in August 2003, U.S. 23 was realigned onto the freeway southward from Ernestville into North Carolina. Photo by Chris Patriarca (04/03).

I-81 north at I-181/US 23 - Kingsport, TN

Exit 57B looped onto I-181/U.S. 23 north 8.5 miles to U.S. 11W (W Stone Drive) west of Downtown Kingsport. Photo by Chris Patriarca (04/03).

I-81 South at I-181 US 23

I-81 south at I-181/US 23 - Kingsport, TN

Interstate 81 headed southwest from Colonial Heights to the exchange with I-181/U.S. 23 in southern reaches of Kingsport. Photo by Chris Patriarca (04/03).

I-81 south at I-181/US 23 - Kingsport, TN

Exit 57B connected I-81 south with I-181 and U.S. 23 north from Kingsport to the Virginia state line at Morrison City. Photo by Chris Patriarca (04/03).

I-81 south at I-181/US 23 - Kingsport, TN

Double Springs Ridge rises to the southwest beyond the cloverleaf interchange with I-181/U.S. 23. Overheads for Exit 57A were amended four months later with the addition of I-26 shields. Photo by Chris Patriarca (04/03).

I-81 south at I-181/US 23 - Kingsport, TN

Interstate 181 overlapped with U.S. 23 south to Johnson City. U.S. 23 extended southward 81 miles to Asheville, North Carolina. Photo by Chris Patriarca (04/03).

Historic South End – US 19W US 23 US 321 – Johnson City, Tennessee

I-181 US 19W US 23 South at US 321

I-181/US 19W-23 south at US 321/SR 67 - Johnson City, TN

I-181/U.S. 19W-321 converged with U.S. 321/ SR 67 southeast of Downtown Johnson City near Roan Hill. The final reassurance marker for I-181 appeared here. Photo by Chris Patriarca (04/03).

I-181/US 19W-23 south at US 321/SR 67 - Johnson City, TN

Exit numbers based upon the mileage of U.S. 23 to the North Carolina state line were used along Interstate 181. Exit 31 was the south end of the spur route. Photo by Chris Patriarca (04/03).

US 19W US 23 North at I-181 US 321

US 19W/23 north at I-181/US 321-SR 67 - Johnson City, TN

The first of five Johnson City exits along U.S. 19W/23 freeway north from Unicoi connected with U.S. 321/SR 67 east to Elizabethtown. The forthcoming parclo interchange represented the south end of Interstate 181. Photo by Chris Patriarca (04/03).

US 19W/23 north at I-181/US 321-SR 67 - Johnson City, TN

U.S. 19W/23 spanned Sinking Creek and an adjacent Tennessee Railroad line leading into the exchange with U.S. 321/SR 67 and the transition onto Interstate 181 north. Photo by Chris Patriarca (04/03).

US 321 North at I-181 US 19W US 23

US 321 north at I-181/US 19W-23 - Johnson City, TN

U.S. 321/SR 67 combine 0.93 miles east from SR 381 by the Holly Hill neighborhood in Johnson City to U.S. 19W/23 and the historic south end of I-181. Photo by Chris Patriarca (04/03).

US 321 north at I-181/US 19W-23 - Johnson City, TN

Interstate 181 accompanied U.S. 19W/23 northwest 3.62 miles to U.S. 11E (N Roan Street) in Johnson City. U.S. 11E/19W overlap northeast to Bluff City. Photo by Chris Patriarca (04/03).

US 321 South at I-181 US 19W US 23

US 321 south at I-181/US 19W-23 - Johnson City, TN

U.S. 321/SR 67 follow an expressway west 3.86 miles from SR 369 in Elizabethton to the exchange with U.S. 19W/23 and former Interstate 181 north. 08/23/03

Sources:

  1. “Frist, Alexander, Jenkins applaud new designation of I-26.” Press Release, August 2, 2005.
  2. “I-181 to become I-26 in Tennessee.” News Channel 11 (www.tricities.com), March 1, 2007.

Page updated July 6, 2021.