Editorial: Interstate 26 needs to have six lanes

Editorial Board • Mar 27, 2020 at 9:00 PM

Later this year, the Tennessee Department of Transportation will reveal the results of a study of the Interstate 26, Interstate 55 and Interstate 75 corridors to provide a prioritized list of projects designed to alleviate congestion, improve safety and identify potential for freight diversion.

In these parts, we already know what’s needed for I-26, which stretches 54 miles from Kingsport to Sams Gap. Part of the solution is to add another lane coming and going between Kingsport and Johnson City. Particularly on Fridays between 4 and 6 p.m., it’s the last place you want to be.

If we’re ever to see it, the region must get behind six-laning I-26, and stay behind it until it happens.

The state is interested in identifying deficiencies along the I-26 corridor and evaluating improvements. TDOT says some of those improvements might be:

• Fix geometric issues at the I-26 and I-81 interchange and address inadequate ramp length, which contributes to congestion.

• Create overnight truck parking areas near Kingsport and Johnson City.

• Address the “freight bottlenecks” between 11-W and Meadowview Parkway; Wilcox Drive and Rock Springs Road; and Flag Pond and the North Carolina state line.

• Installation of fencing where I-26 crosses Bays Mountain to reduce animal-crossing-related crashes.

• Address vision issues caused by glare near Eastern Star Road.

• Ensure adequate lighting and advanced signage at the 13 interchanges in Washington and Sullivan counties in the urbanized area.

• Widen inside shoulders, with potential median modification, to allow for more recovery time to prevent roadway departure crashes with cable barriers.

• Install overhead signage at State of Franklin Road “to prevent last-minute weaving movements.”

• Install a road weather system the entire length of Unicoi County to provide roadway users with real-time information on inclement weather conditions.

All of those projects are worthy. But bottom line, there’s too much traffic on I-26 for the present capacity, especially between Kingsport and Johnson City as I-81 unloads traffic going both directions. Just over Bays Mountain easterly, I-26 has average daily traffic (ADT) of 28,600 vehicles. But just after its connection to I-81, traffic nearly doubles to 53,000 vehicles exiting from I-81 and headed to Johnson City.

Near Boones Creek Road, the ADT headed east is 62,400 vehicles, and just past Roan Street in Johnson City it’s 67,400 vehicles.

Completion of the study doesn’t set in stone any of TDOT’s plans or recommendations because local planning organizations then weigh in. That’s where the case should be made to six-lane I-26.

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