The freeway along U.S. 19-23-70 leading north from Interstate 240 and Patton Avenue in Downtown Asheville remains below interstate standards. The Bowen / Smoky Park Bridge across the river is equally substandard, with no shoulders and heavy traffic. As such, the freeway built in the 1960s north to Woodfin is designated as Future I-26 until upgrades are made along the corridor. A portion of the route will be bypassed by the I-26 Connector, a new alignment and bridge across the French Broad River planned to meet 2025 forecast traffic counts.5
The I-26 Connector includes upgrading 4.3 miles of I-26/240, from the junction with I-40 northeast to the Patton Avenue interchange. North from there, a new 2.6 mile long alignment will be constructed taking Interstate 26 across the French Broad River to U.S. 19-23-70 south of Broadway Street. Included in the project are interchange improvements for exits to I-40, NC 191, Amboy Road, U.S. 19-23 Business/Haywood Road, and Patton Avenue. A Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on the I-26 Connector was released in October 2015. Construction on the estimated $1.2 billion project is anticipated to start in Fall 2023.1
In May 2016, The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) finalized a route for Section B of the I-26 Connector, clearing a major hurdle in relation to the overall project. Dubbed Alternative 4B, and heavily favored by local residents3, this selection for I-26/240 separates local and through traffic.4 The new configuration will take I-240 traffic from Downtown along U.S. 19/23 north before turning west near Hill Street to cross over the French Broad River. New spans will cross the river in a sweeping arc, returning the I-240 mainline in the vicinity of Patton Avenue. The existing Bowen Bridge will be refitted to provide additional space for bicyclists and pedestrians and repurposed for local traffic between Asheville and West Asheville. The present exchange between I-240 and U.S. 19/23 near the east end of the Bowen Bridge will be also be modernized as part of the project. As a result of selecting this alternative, the I-26/240 concurrency will be extended by up to 0.7 miles. Estimated costs for Section B were $332 million, and construction was originally anticipated to begin in late 2023 or 20244 and run for at least three years.3
The Asheville loop was originally proposed as a 3.9 mile long spur from I-40. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) conditionally approved the route on December 19, 1975. It was tentatively assigned the designation of Interstate 140. Subsequent correspondence from the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) with the FHWA on March 17, 1976 cited the connection from the I-40 spur to other existing freeway facilities to form a loop.
The loop function of the approved I-40 spur is of equal or greater importance than its function as a spur.
Asheville is a tourist mecca. Present loop access is designated by a confusing multiplicity of signed routing: US 19, US 23, US 70, US 74, and NC 191. By designating the existing loop facility, including the previously approved I-40 spur route, as an Interstate System Loop, the signing confusion could be avoided.
The FHWA approved the 5.2 mile extension of Interstate Route 140 in Asheville from U.S. 70/74 southwesterly to I-40/26 on April 21, 1976, with the revised designation of Interstate 240. The American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) concurred with the the establishment of I-240 on July 13, 1976.
The first portion to open was the original U.S. 70 bypass freeway north of Downtown in the early 1960s. Another three miles of Interstate 240, between I-40 and Patton Avenue, were completed by 1970. This portion was designated as North Carolina Route 191. The eastern portion of freeway across Beaucatcher Mountain was completed in late 1980.2