That certainly was the case Wednesday afternoon when a tractor-trailer mishap jammed up eastbound I-26 during rush hour. Scores of drivers rerouted onto the old highway, creating a second quagmire. Why the jam? About 6 miles of the old highway between the Interstate 81 junction in Colonial Heights and Bobby Hicks Highway in Gray remain just two lanes, save for a short three-lane stretch in Midway.
Drivers exiting from I-81 also found themselves caught on the offramp behind others in line to merge. The fact that the lanes reduce right at the exchange is a marvel of engineering forethought.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation has a plan to address the mess by expanding the old highway to five lanes, just as it did with the portion from Johnson City to Gray a few years ago. Why that next 6-mile stretch was left out of that project is anyone’s guess — another marvel of forethought.
And it could be years yet before the details even reach paper. TDOT reports that funding to begin the preliminary design phase is in its next three-year plan up for consideration this year. That means sketches might not begin until 2024, and funding for the actual project would be even further down the proverbial road.
Given the increase in volume on I-26 — we’ve already advocated for expansion to six lanes between the cities — it’s no surprise that crashes are frequent. Paralysis is almost the norm. That’s why many commuters already avoid I-26 altogether in favor of the old highway, despite traffic lights and slower speed limits. Residential growth in Boones Creek and Gray also has increased traffic on Tenn. Highway 36, and many of those residents commute to Johnson City or Kingsport daily.
The Northeast Tennessee legislative delegation should see to it that widening the old highway receives instant priority. Design funding should arrive no later than 2021 with full construction following as soon as possible.
We recognize that every community in Tennessee has its share of infrastructure needs, including highway improvements, and that TDOT has a method for coping with that demand. But this is a clear and present concern. Tenn. Highway 36 already was a known problem when the Washington County portion was widened.
It’s time to finish the job.