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Office of Planning, Environment, & Realty (HEP)

I-181 Becomes I-26: The Economic Development Dimension

Statement by Martin Weiss

A statement by Martin Weiss, Team Leader, National Systems and Economic Development Team, Office of Interstate and Border Planning, FHWA.


In March 2007, Interstate I-181 in Tennessee was renumbered to I-26.

On May 14-15, 2007, coordinated by Chris Campbell of the City of Kingsport, Tennessee, I met with a number of officials (of both public and private organizations) regarding the subject. These individuals all had some role in either the planning or the advocacy of changing I-181 to I-26 or they had a role in responding to the change.

The visit served two purposes. The first; was to get a first hand look at the corridor. The second; was to develop images and other information that could be used as a baseline in a few years to evaluate the changes that have taken place in the corridor since the change in interstate numbering. The map below shows the corridor: Map of I-26 in Tennessee and North Carolina courtesy of the Johnson City MPO

Map of I-26 in Tennessee and North Carolina showing that it extends from Kingsport and the Virginia/Tennessee line generally southeast crossing I-81 in Tennessee then to Johnson City, Tennessee, then south and south/southwest to the North Carolina Line then south toward Asheville, North Carolina where it crosses I-40.

The I-26 map shown implies that the freeway that becomes I-26 is signed as I-26 north of Kingsport. This is not the case. The section between US 11 near Kingsport and the Virginia State line was constructed to Interstate standards but has not been signed as I-26. However there is an information sign near the VA line for view by southbound traffic that says 'To I-26'."

Prior to March 2007, the portion of I-26 in Tennessee was signed as I-181. Also, prior to this, the exits were numbered according to the milepost method with the higher numbers close to Virginia. Subsequent to March 2007, the exits were numbered according to the milepost method but with the lower numbers close to Virginia. Images taken during the renumbering appear immediately below:

An image of the exit ramp for exit #6 as it was after completion of the exit renumbering in March 2007. The image shows the highway is in a valley and the general area is partially developed. The exit is just before a structure that carries the both directions of the highway over a low area.

An image of the exit ramp for exit #6 as it was after completion of the exit renumbering in March 2007.

An image of the exit ramp for exit #6 as it was before completion of the exit renumbering in March 2007. The image shows the highway is in a valley and the general areas is partially developed. The exit is just before a structure that carries the both directions of the highway over a low area.

An image of the exit ramp for exit #49 as it was before completion of the exit renumbering in March 2007. The two images are of the same physical exit.

Both images are through the courtesy of Travis Brickey of Tennessee DOT.

The chart below, which comes from a Tennessee DOT News Release of March 2007, shows the exit numbers before and after the change.

Interstate 26 logo shield Tennessee DOT logo
I-26 Interchange Numbering
County Old Exit Number New Exit Number Description
55 1 SR 1/US 11W (Stone Dr.)
52 3 Meadow View Parkway
51A 4A
SR 93 South
51B 4B SR 93 North (Wilcox Dr)
49 6 SR 347 Rock Spring Rd
46A 8B I-81 North Bristol
46B 8A I-81 South Knoxville
45 10 Eastern Star Rd
42 13 SR 75 Gray (Bobby Hicks Hwy)
38 17 SR 354 Boones Creek
36 19 SR 381 State of Franklin Rd
35 20A
US 11E / 19W (SR 34)
North Roan St
33 22 SR 400 Unaka / Watauga Ave
32 23 SR 91 Market St
31 24 US 321 (SR 67) Elizabethton
28 27 SR 359 N Okalona Rd
23 32 SR 173 Unicoi Rd
21 34 Tinker Rd
19 36 Main St Erwin
18 37 SR 81 / SR 107 Erwin-Jonesborough
15 40 Jackson-Love Hwy
12 43 US 19W (SR 352) Temple Hill Rd
9 46 Clear Branch Rd
5 50 Flag Pond Rd

The need for exit renumbering was based on the fact that the Interstate was being renumbered from a N-S route to an E-W route. An abbreviated chronology of events leading up to the renumbering is:

The local (e.g., Kingsport, Johnson City) motivation for designation of I-181 as I-26 was, as I determined from the meetings of May 14-15, 2007, essentially two-fold.

The first general motivation was that, as noted in the request from Tennessee DOT the designation of I-26 from Kingsport to I-81 made logical sense from the view of local users of the freeway.

As related to me on this trip, the logic of that argument is that if I-181 would not have been made part of I-26 (or if I-181 had become I-126), the exit numbering would have resulted in some confusion for some drivers. The non I-26 numbering to Kingsport would result in the exit numbers decreasing while proceeding north on I-26 toward I-81, then increasing again without the driver having exited the Interstate. Drivers looking for exit 6 on I-26 might mistakenly use exit 6 on I-181 or visa versa. The magnitude of such mistakes is difficult to estimate. However, obviously each mistake would result in extra VMT, extra travel time for the driver/passenger and increased accident risk. Had I-181 been renumbered as I-126 it would have introduced additional confusion into the system because there is a state road 126 in the area (which would cross I-126 as an overpass).


The second general motivation was that, designation of I-181 as I-26 (with renumbering), would fit into the overall plan for economic development of both Johnson City and Kingsport (but especially Kingsport).

This second motivation requires some explanation.

The economic development dimension results from: facts on the ground; business trends; and, perceptions and anticipations of future developments.

Regarding facts on the ground, there is little argument that the Interstate connection between Asheville and the Johnson City/Kingsport area is both a transportation asset and something of an aesthetic success (see image below taken showing I-26 in the foreground and hills in the background). There is also no argument that the most important private employer in area, Eastman Chemical Company, delivers much of their product using the I-26 corridor.

In the foreground is a freeway, in midlle ground a forest and in the background mountains.

"The view from I-26 in Tennessee resembles the view from the Blue Ridge Parkway. This image is at about milepost 46. May 14, 2007."

In the background is a two or three story building with a sign indicating it is part of Eastman Chemical Company. In front of the building is a landscaped area.

"Eastman Chemical Company's Corporate HQ building is in Kingsport. The company employed over 8000 directly and about 2500 indirectly in 2006; about 8% of the total Kingsport-Bristol MSA employment. May 14, 2007"

In the background is a two or three story building. A landscaped driveway and parking area is in the foreground.

"Meadow View Conference Resort and Convention Center at exit 3 of I-26 (formerly exit 52 of I-181) has about 66,000 square feet of meeting space. May 14, 2007"

A 4 story office building with a mountain in the background. The mountain is covered with autumn foliage.

Eastman Credit Union is the largest credit union in the state of Tennessee. The 60,000 square ft. building shown above, serves as this company's global headquarters and is located directly off of I 26 at Exit 3. ;The image, which was provided to FHWA by the Eastman Credit ;Union, ;was taken in the fall of 2005 when the building was completed.

Regarding business trends, local development and redevelopment projects are being initiated and executed based on the success of similar developments in Asheville. This has been helped by enhancement of the downtown Kingsport streetscape. Simultaneously, the Northeast State Community College (a 2-year institution) in Sullivan County is expanding. A part of this expansion is driven by Sullivan County's education initiative which supports tuition not covered by Federal, private or State support for all county graduates who enroll in Northeast State Community College. I was informed that this initiative only requires an appropriation of about $200,000 a year but Eastman Chemical (for example) considers this an important support for their continuing need for trainable employees.

In foreground is an area with diagonal parking. In the background is a row of business buildings with trees planted in a sidewalk area near the buildings.

"At the corner of Market and Broad Street in the Kingsport CBD is a theatre being redeveloped. May 14, 2007"

A landscaped plaza with driveways in the foreground. On the left and right are rows of business buildings.

"The streetscape at Market and Broad has recently been improved. A theatre at the left of the picture is being redeveloped. May 14, 2007"

A parking area is in the foreground and a two story building in the right background. In the left background is a two story building with some trailers and a crane in front of them.

"Expansion is underway at Northeast State Community College adjacent to the Tri-Cities Regional Airport about 5 miles from I-26 (using exit 13). May 15, 2007"

In 2006, the employment trend was positive for both the Kingsport-Bristol Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) and the Johnson City MSA. The table below depicts this trend.

Employment Trendi
MSA Employed December 2005ii Employed December 2006 Unemployed December 2005 Unemployed December 2006
Kingsport-Bristol 133,899iii 137,472 6,447 5,864
Johnson City 91,938 96,616 4,486 4,167

The rate of growth in employment in the combined MSAs was about 3.7% during this period while the rate of growth in the US was a bit under 2.0%iv.

Regarding perceptions and anticipations of future developments, much of the efforts of Kingsport and Sullivan County are based on a 1999 economic summit. As recollected by some of the participants, at that time renumbering the Interstate north of I-81 was just one of many ideas but an idea that was synergistic with the other ideas. Other ideas as recollected were establishment of an industrial park, establishment of a business incubator and promotion of the Tri-Cities Regional Airport as well as a strategic plan for marketing the I-26 corridor as a brand.

In left foreground is an partially hard surfaced road. In the middleground and on the right is a field area with high grass or alfalfa. In the background on the left is sign a wooded area.

"Gateway Commerce Park is within 2 miles of I-81 and 3 miles of I-26. May 15, 2007"

On the right is a road. In the middle is a parking area. On the left is a sign saying Holson Business Development Center" and a plain looking low rise building.

"Holson Business Development Center is on the north side of Kingsport about 2 miles from I-26. May 15, 2007"

On the left is a landscaped hill. In the center a three lane driveway with some diagonal parking on the immediately to the left of the driveway. On the right is a three story building with a roof that extends beyond the walls.

"Tri-Cities Regional Airport is adjacent to Northeast State Community College, about 5 miles from I-26 (using exit 13). May 15, 2007"

The renumbering was thought to make the industrial park and the business incubator easier to find (because of the lower exit numbers) and simplify the marketing of the regional airport.

The work of developing a strategic plan for marketing the I-26 corridor hasn't apparently progressed significantly since the 1999 economic summit. Formatting a strategic plan and executing it is clearly a formidable task. I am aware of some efforts have been made in the New York/Pennsylvania I-86 corridor to establish a brandv, however, I am not aware of any major successes achieved in that effort. In the case of I-26, Eastman Chemical Company (see image above) already sends much of its production to the port of Charleston via this corridor. Notwithstanding the success of the branding effort, the mobility and safety improvements already in place seem to have clearly contributed to the economic sustainability and vitality of the corridor. A reasonable hypothesis is that continued economic growth is likely (although perhaps not as strong as in 2006). The FHWA looks forward to future visits to the corridor to validate this hypothesis with the information in this report as a baseline.

Post Trip Announcement by Eastman Chemical

About two months after this trip, a major expansion of Eastman Chemical Company's operations was announced. This expansion would be funded at over $200 million per year for the next five years. The expansion would be accompanied by a partnership with Northeast State Technical Community College to develop its workforce. As of September 2007 general expectations were that this would, by the end of the 5 year period, substantially increase direct employment in the Kingsport area by the Eastman Chemical Company. Eastman Chemical Company had not provided any official estimate regarding new employment as of that date.

Post Trip Events regarding Gateway Industrial Park

Within about three months after this trip FedEx was, according to the Kingsport Times-News, working toward establishing a distribution center at Gateway Industrial Park (shown above). Several newspaper articles noted this work. As of early October 2007, plans were for a 90,000 square foot facility employing about 75 and grading of the site, in preparation for construction, was on-going.

On Oct 31, there was a ceremonial groundbreaking for a Fed-Ex Ground Distribution Center that would open in the summer of 2008 and serve the general region of Kingsport and Johnson City, Tennessee and Bristol, Virginia.

i The employment and unemployment numbers come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The web site is: . These numbers were valid as of March 14, 2007. The BLS periodically recalculates employment and unemployment based on receipt of updated information and/or corrections. However, these corrections typically do not make a difference in the 1st two significant digits.

ii The BLS series extends further into the past; however, because the process that resulted in the designation of I-26 north of I-81 was settled by 2005 legislation, I have not recorded the values in this report.

iii As noted above, Eastman Chemical directly or indirectly employed about 8% of the MSA total in 2006.

iv The US employment growth rate, which comes from about the same source (, is seasonally adjusted while the MSA data is not. However, using the same month in sequential years (in this case December in both 2005 and 2006) for both data series generally provides a reasonable comparison to the first two significant digits.

vInformation available near the end of a report at:

Updated: 10/20/2015
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