On Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2003, a new nine-mile section of limited-access highway opened in North Carolina. The route links existing portions of US 23 in Tennessee and North Carolina, and is signed as Interstate 26. After an opening ceremony at the new North Carolina Welcome Center, the highway officially opened to traffic. It completes the route of the Appalachian Regional Commission's Corridor B from Asheville, N.C. to Columbus, Ohio; and also completes a four-lane route from South Carolina to Ohio and Michigan.
After approval was granted by the Amercan Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, Tennessee placed I-26 signs on the route formerly occupied by Interstate 181 between I-81 and Johnson City. The I-26 desgination continues past Johnson City on a freeway occupied by US 23 (and partly by US 19W) that was completed in sections to the Tennessee-North Carolina state line at Sams Gap.
By 1995, the Tennessee portion was complete. North Carolina was slower to finish its portion of the freeway. The Tarheel State also worked on its highway incrementally. Prior to the August 2003 opening, the highway was complete only to the split of US 19 and US 23 north of Mars Hill.
On Saturday, Aug. 9, four days after the route opened, the author toured the new route. Here is a virtual tour of the new route and the old highway it replaced.
Although US 23 is a limited-access route its entire length in Tennessee, only the portion between the US 11W exit in Kingsport and the US 321 exit in Johnson City carried the designation as I-181. When the I-26 designation was awarded by AASHTO, it extended northward only to the I-81 interchange between the two cities. AASHTO turned down a request by Tennessee officials -- in particular, leaders in Kingsport -- to designate the portion north of I-81 as I-26. Therefore, it retains the I-181 number for now. (Tennesseeans have vowed to obtain congressional intervention in their efforts to change the route's number.)
As you approach the I-81 interchange heading south on US 23 and I-181, there is no indication that the route will change numbers from I-181 to I-26.
Heading north on I-81 (from Knoxville toward Bristol) this is the first signage for the approaching interchange.
This overhead sign on northbound I-81 shows how the exit for I-181 is signed, and how the new signage for I-26 (an east-west route) was handled. In the distance is the interchange, a standard cloverleaf with I-81 passing underneath the ARC corridor.
Heading back south on I-81, from Bristol toward Knoxville, this is the first signage indicating the upcoming interchange.
Technically this sign is still true, since North Carolina plans to retain the US 23 designation on the old route replaced by the new I-26. However, since trucks will use the new route as a shortcut from the Tri-Cities area of northeast Tennessee to Asheville, the Tennessee Department of Transportation should probably take this sign down.
This is the overhead signage on southbound I-81 at the interchange.
This is the signage for the exit from I-81 south onto the newly-designated I-26 east.