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Highway 137: Our first "freeway" experience

J. H. Osborne • Jan 10, 2020 at 7:30 PM

Do you remember Highway 137? It was a four-lane, divided road that gave Kingsporters their first chance for “freeway” type driving to Johnson City. It “started” (from our end) at Wicox Drive and Highway 93 and took motorists all the way to Boones Creek Road. At least that’s what my older sister tells me. I remember taking it all the way to North Roan Street, where we’d exit to go to The Mall at Johnson City.

If that sounds familiar, or if you remember Highway 137, it’s because it’s still around. It’s just called Interstate 26. And now it extends, as I-26, from Stone Drive in Kingsport to the North Carolina state line ... and on to Charleston.

I’ve been thinking about my earliest memories of Highway 137 this week after attending a Tennessee Department of Transportation public meeting about potential improvements to the I-26 corridor in Tennessee.

A lot of folks remember it more as I-181, a designation it held between its time as 137 and its evolution into I-26.

I know by the time I was at East Tennessee State University it had been extended well past the University Parkway exit on Johnson City’s end, and over Bays Mountain to Stone Drive on Kingsport’s end. After spending a lot of time in Washington, D.C., I fantasized that someday we’d have a light rail passenger train running down the median of 137/I-181/I-26. When I shared that with the TDOT folks at the meeting, they got a good laugh. I was laughing with them.

Typing all the road’s various designated numbers reminds me that I know several people who call it 126. But 126 is the state route from Kingsport, through Blountville, and into Bristol. As a side note, a former boss used to get very agitated when I would point out he’d posted a story about a bad wreck on I-81. He was usually convinced it had been in Sullivan County. I’m not sure I ever made him understand Highway 81, a two-lane state road, is in rural Washington County, roughly between Fall Branch and points south of Jonesborough. Those wrecks were usually on Highway 81.

Through all the name changes, one thing had remained consistent for me over the years regarding the “new road” between Kingsport and J.C. — I preferred the “old road,” Highway 36. Winding, somewhat hilly, two lanes most of the way, few street lights at night and no traffic lights for most of the wide open space between North Roan Street coming out of Johnson City and Fort Henry Drive coming into Kingsport. Windows down on hot summer nights, radio blaring in my ’67 Mustang. That was how to travel. But the “old road” is not its old self anymore. I drove it a couple of weeks ago, coming back from Johnson City. It has been four-laned to the Sullivan County line at Highway 75 (which was just “Airport Road” when I was a kid). And there’s been a lot of development and added traffic signals and street lights.

The TDOT folks said four-laning 36 from Highway 75 to I-81 at Colonial Heights in Kingsport is coming.

As for potential plans for I-26 in Tennessee, I was happy with many of the suggestions — the result of an 18-month study expected to be completed soon — TDOT is considering. There’s no train down the median. But there could be a commuter transportation system (probably based on buses, maybe building off each city’s current transit systems) between Johnson City and Kingsport. And park-and-ride commuter parking lots.

If you’d like to give TDOT your two-cents worth, there’s still time to participate in an online survey at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/QZHRQJ7, and to learn more about the study, visit www.tn.gov/tdot/55-75-26.

 

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