I-26 Construction Could Conclude in a Year - TribPapers

I-26 Construction Could Conclude in a Year

Widening of this bridge over the French Broad River is a leading visual landmark of the I-26 project. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

Asheville – Widening of Interstate 26 between Buncombe and Henderson counties is an ongoing half-decade traffic nightmare for motorists — one that they can snap out of by spring of 2024 when the project concludes.

The 22-mile, $534 million I-26 project began in October 2019. It is still projected to take about another year to finish construction, then up to another half-year for detailing and landscaping. Construction is on track to end around Thanksgiving and the entire project to be complete in about April of 2024, according to N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT) Division 13 Assistant Construction Engineer Nathan Moneyham in Asheville.

This bridge near exit 37 is in its early phase of construction, on its east side. It sports a red crane and a blue lift tower. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
This bridge near exit 37 is in its early phase of construction, on its east side. It sports a red crane and a blue lift tower. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

The number of lanes is doubling in Buncombe County. The aim is to streamline and ease traffic on I-26’s busiest local corridor. Yet the opposite happens during construction, frustrating motorists. Work lane closures bottle up traffic. I-26 lanes are often rerouted, winding and extra narrow, and squeezed between a series of Jersey concrete barriers. There are occasional long detours around road closures, periodic accidents, and often (without indication of a crash or lane closure) mysterious bumper-to-bumper traffic jams that typically last 20 to 45 minutes.

Two Main Sections

The budget is split nearly evenly between contracts with separate lead contractors. One is with Fluor-United Joint Venture of Greenville, S.C. for $263 million. That is for the Buncombe section from I-26’s interchanges with I-40 and I-240 going toward Henderson County.

This features 7.8 miles from I-40 to exit 40 for N.C. 280, the Asheville Regional Airport and toward Mills River. Northbound (toward Asheville) and southbound lanes are separated enough for new lanes to go between them. Lanes heading each way are doubled from two to four, for eight overall. The first four-lane portion to be done was at the interchanges.

In contrast, the median is narrower in the Henderson County portion, which forces new lanes to go in on the sides. That section has a $271 million contract with Archer-Wright Joint Venture, heading to U.S. 64/Four Seasons Boulevard (exit 49A) in Hendersonville and 64 East to Edneyville (exit 49B). That is to widen the highway from four to six total lanes. I-26 extends 9.1 miles from U.S. 64 to N.C. 280.

Both county sections are on budget or even below estimates, according to DOT project updates.

Many Variations

Work is closer to completion in some sub-sections than others. Some points near Fletcher still have dirt. Most old highway is removed. Much new base is in. Many areas of I-26 have new concrete road surface in by now. Some are also paved, and getting used by motorists. Road shoulders and emergency lanes will be asphalt.

Lane locations get shifted so motorists initially use the old highway, then new pavement while old highway is removed and replaced.

Typically, two new lanes at a time are added. Four lanes are going in on the same side, such as on a stretch south of the Skyland exit. Where lanes are added varies in different locations, as the path winds through the mountainous terrain. Two new lanes are added initially on one side of I-26 in some spots, but go first on the other side in other locations. The next step might be adding two lanes on the other side, or else in between existing lanes where there is a wide grassy median.

Elevation is much higher for some northbound lanes getting added, such as those south of the Skyland exit 37 for N.C. 146/Long Shoals Road.


Thirteen bridges are being replaced as part of the project. New bridges are projected to last a century. Their construction is eye-catching, such as with large cranes. Most notable is how new southbound bridge lanes are in going over a wide stretch of the French Broad River. A bridge near exit 37 is in its early phase of construction. It sports a red crane and a blue lift tower.

A bridge over the Blue Ridge Parkway is made of 76 pre-fabricated pieces that are assembled on site. Work starts on the east side, where northbound traffic goes toward Asheville. The bridge will be assembled on the highway’s west side only after all four new westbound lanes are completed, and traffic is rerouted to those lanes.

Most new bridges are going in beside an old bridge and once ready, the old bridge is then removed. That could not happen when replacing the bridge that takes Butler Bridge Road over I-26, near Fletcher. Due to limited space, the new bridge had to go precisely in place of the old one. Thus the old bridge had to go out right away, and travel was detoured. Work was done in a half year, which is half the usual timetable.

Other major improvements include repaving existing I-26 lanes, strengthening several retaining walls, and upgrading all drainage systems. NCDOT notes that repaving of I-26 was done merely twice, and most recently 11 years ago.