More and more people seem to be making that daily trek, and since the highway was extended from Erwin to Asheville, North Carolina, nearly 16 years ago, it’s gone from being a largely local byway to a national route.
In the Johnson City area alone, an estimated 64,230 vehicles travel the route per day, according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s 2017 figures. Trucks account for 6% of that total. The Kingsport area averages 26,560 vehicles per day with 7% of that total in trucks.
TDOT also reports that there were 2,000 accidents along the 54-mile stretch of I-26 from 2014-2018. Eight fatalities were included. Crash rates along 40 percent of the I-26 corridor were significantly above the statewide average, according to study commissioned by TDOT.
As we have reported in recent editions, TDOT is taking a comprehensive look at the I-26 corridor — for the first time since it became an interstate in 1985 when it was dubbed I-181 — as part of an 18-month study also involving I-75 and I-55.
With the amount of traffic on the road and the high crash rate, it should be clear to TDOT that six lanes are needed at least from Exit 24 (University Parkway) through Johnson City and Gray to the Interstate 81 exchange in Sullivan County. Preferably, the expansion would go all the way into Kingsport to join the six-lane stretch already in place around Bays Mountain.
It would be expensive endeavor given the number of bridges and underpasses along the way.
And six lanes won’t do it all.
TDOT has seen fit to improve three of Washington County’s problem exits. Exit 13 in Gray (Bobby Hicks Highway) and the aforementioned Exit 24 already have been completed, and a much-needed overhaul at Exit 17 (Boones Creek Road) is next.
Two other exits are in immediate need of improvement, though. In both directions, Exit 20A/20B at North Roan Street and Exit 8A/8B at the I-81 exchange have abrupt transitions that force vehicles entering and exiting to compete for spots in the same lane. It’s especially messy when oncoming traffic ties up the two main lanes. The off-ramp from I-26 onto I-81 toward Knoxville presents a similar problem for drivers trying to enter the I-26 onramp toward Kingsport.
The mess at Exit 20 eastbound is compounded by traffic that just entered I-26 from nearby State of Franklin Road. Because the bridge over North Roan has just two lanes, the lanes from State of Franklin narrow from four to two and back to three for the off-ramp to North Roan. Contrast that to the continuous lane between Exit 22 (Watauga/Unaka) and Exit 23 (Main/Market).
It’s a mess to explain and an even bigger mess to drive through.
TDOT also should do drivers a favor by adding exits between Boones Creek and Gray (a 4-mile stretch) and Gray and Eastern Star Road (3 miles). Having additional exit points would alleviate some of those long waits when accidents occur. An employee here recently spent two hours behind a truck crash during rush hour with no escape route available.
And in the long run, TDOT also must consider widening the only other north-south route — Tenn. Highway 36 — beyond the Sullivan County line to Colonial Heights. The Washington County section was widened a few years ago.
None of this will happen overnight, given costs and sheer scope, but TDOT should include all of these factors with a timeline for completion in phases. As each stretch of I-26 is widened, the exits along the way should be upgraded, too.