Interstate 26 or I -26 is an Interstate Highway in the U.S. state of North Carolina. The highway forms a north-south route in the west of the state, through the Appalachian Mountains. I-26 runs from the Tennessee border through Asheville to the South Carolina border. Interstate 26 is 112 miles long.
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I-26 in the Appalachian Mountains.
Interstate 26 in Tennessee comes from Johnson City and reaches the North Carolina border at Sams Gap, a 1,158-foot mountain pass. This is the highest point on the highway network in North Carolina. I-26 then begins a long descent into the town of Asheville, 25 miles south. This section is considered one of the most beautifully located highways in the state. I-26 partly coincides with Interstate 240 along the west side of the city of Asheville. One crosses the French Broad River twice at Asheville. There is also an interchange with Interstate 40 on the west side of Asheville.
South of Asheville, I-26 leads through a densely populated valley around Arden and Hendersonville. This area has some lower ridges, the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. I-26 runs here at a maximum of 650 meters above sea level. At Hendersonville, US 25 branches off as a freeway to Greenville, South Carolina. I-26 heads east to South Carolina, via Columbus, where the highway has a long descent from Howards Gap. At Columbus, US 74 branches off as a freeway to Gastonia. Shortly after, they reach the South Carolina border. Interstate 26 in South Carolina then continues to Spartanburg and Columbia.
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Prior to the construction of I-26, US 23 was the primary link north of Asheville and US 25 and US 176 south of Asheville. At Asheville, US 25 moved a little further east and continued east of the French Broad River, while I-26 was later built west of the river.
The original plan for the Interstate Highways envisioned Asheville as the northern terminus. So I-26 would run from I-40 in Asheville to Charleston. Construction on I-26 began in the mid-1960s and the first section opened near Hendersonville on January 12, 1967. This connected with US 25 to Greenville, traditionally the primary north-south link, but no Interstate Highway was ultimately built all the way from Asheville to Greenville.
In 1969, I-26 opened between Asheville and the Hendersonville area. By 1970, the section between Columbus and the South Carolina border was also completed. After that, the part between Hendersonville and Columbus was still missing, this route led over Howards Gap, which has a strong descent on the east side of the mountain. This project was complex and was plagued by landslides on the slope where I-26 is constructed. This section opened on October 29, 1976, continuing I-26 from Asheville to the South Carolina border as originally planned.
It was later decided to build I-26 north of Asheville as well. The northern approach road to Asheville has already been built for this, it was built in the late 1960s between Weaverville and Asheville as the US 19/23 freeway. In the 1970s this was extended northwards to Mars Hill. I-240 also opened in Asheville in the mid 1970s. In 1987, it was officially decided to extend I-26 north from Asheville into Tennessee. At that time, only the northernmost 15 kilometers had to be built between Mars Hill and the Tennessee border. However, this was a complex project with valley bridges and a long slope of 6 percent. This section was constructed between 1997 and 2003 and opened to traffic on August 5, 2003.
It is planned to widen a 22-mile stretch of I-26 between Hendersonville and Asheville to 2×4 lanes. The southern section between US 25 at Hendersonville and Asheville Regional Airport will be widened to 2×3 lanes. The northern section between Asheville Regional Airport and I-40 in Asheville will be widened to 2×4 lanes. The cost is estimated at $396 million. The work started in October 2019 and should be completed by mid-2024.
Interstate 26 Connector
The complex traffic situation at Asheville.
One project in progress is the I-26 Connector in Asheville, which will widen I-26/I-240 through west Asheville and build a new route that will swing through two interchanges with US19/23 and I- 240, including a new bridge over the French Broad River. The project includes 12 kilometers of freeway. The Environmental Impact Statement was published on February 4, 2020. The total cost of the project is $950 million.
Today’s I-26/240 through Asheville is very unhappily designed with cramped connections, left-hand in and outs, substandard interchanges on the west and north sides of Asheville, and a cramped TOTSO with US 74 Alternate. This is combined with high traffic volumes, making I-26/240 through Asheville a significant bottleneck for traffic flow and road safety.
I-26 Asheville – Mars Hill
I-26 at Asheville.
It is planned to reconstruct I-26 between Asheville and Mars Hill. This is the oldest section of I-26 in North Carolina. This route may be widened to 2×3 lanes. The cost is estimated at $200 million. Preparations were suspended indefinitely in May 2020 due to a cash shortage.
9,300 vehicles cross the border into Tennessee every day, rising to 69,000 vehicles at Asheville. 50,000 vehicles per day drive south of Asheville, dropping to 30,000 on the South Carolina border
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