Interstate 540 begins at U.S. 271 in southern Fort Smith and travels northeast through Fort Smith to Van Buren and Interstate 40. The route was truncated on April 21, 2014 when signs for I-540 north of I-40 at Alma were removed as part of a 30-day project to resign the I-40-to-Fayetteville/Bentonville stretch of I-540 as I-49.
Originally commissioned as a spur from Interstate 40 at Van Buren southwest toward Fort Smith, Arkansas, Interstate 540 was signed as an east-west route. The route was extended southward to the Oklahoma state line as approved by AASHTO on October 28, 1978. This routing lasted from the early 1970s (based on Rand McNally maps of Fort Smith) and remains in place today.
However, this was to be just the starting point for a much longer Interstate 540, which was extended in lieu of designating the highway north of Interstate 40 as Interstate 49. The freeway section was initially signed as Arkansas 540 as the freeway was built in stages during the mid to late 1990s. While Arkansas 540 was initially denied for the Interstate 49 designation on April 25, 1997, it was approved as Interstate 540 by AASHTO on November 14, 1997. This section of Interstate 540 would extend from the former northern end of Interstate 540 to Business U.S. 71 north of Fayetteville. The condition of the November 1997 approval was that Interstate 540 would be initially signed as a future route. Once the new designation was approved, Interstate 540 was signed as north-south on both segments on either side of Interstate 40; the Interstate 540 extension was made official on January 8, 1999, when the complete route was opened from Interstate 40 north to Fayetteville.
The first segment of Arkansas 540 opened to traffic in 1995 between Interstate 40 and Mountainburg; a subsequent extension in 1998 brought the state highway freeway to Fayetteville. At no time did Interstate 540 or Arkansas 540 carry the U.S. 71 designation; U.S. 71 is routed along the Boston Mountains Scenic Byway to the east. This freeway is considered an engineering marvel, as it has major cuts through the Boston Mountains and passes through the Bobby Hopper Tunnel (0.3 miles long; opened in 1999 and named for a former Arkansas Highway Commission director) between Exits 34 (220) and 45 (231).
On April 7, 2000, the Route Numbering subcommittee of AASHTO approved the extension of Interstate 540 from Business U.S. 71 north of Fayetteville, to the interchange with U.S. 62 in Rogers. Highway Commissioner Jonathan Barnett indicated on May 16, 2000 that the "ultimate goal is to upgrade the entire Highway 71 corridor in western Arkansas to an Interstate" standard facility.2
In 2001, Interstate 540 was extended once again, this time to the city of Bentonville (perhaps best known as home of Wal-Mart) at Exit 93 (U.S. 71).
The original Fayetteville bypass for U.S. 71 (Fulbright Expressway), now incorporated into Interstate 540, was opened in 1971.
Efforts of the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) and the October 15, 2011 conditional approval by the AASHTO Highways Special Committee on U.S. Route Numbering to begin signing Interstate 49 along the U.S. 71 freeway between Joplin and Kansas City by December 2012 prompted AHTD officials to submit an application at the Fall 2012 meeting of the AASHTO Special Committee on U.S. Route Numbering to redesignate all of Interstate 540 north from I-40 to I-49.6 Approval for the redesignation of I-540 as I-49 was given by AASHTO on October 21, 2013.
That portion of I-540 north from I-40, at an interchange five miles east of the current north end near Van Buren, was redesignated Interstate 49 in April 2014. This transferred 72 miles of I-540 to I-49. This leaves the original Interstate 540 spur into Fort Smith. Interstate 49 will not follow this segment and instead follow an alignment toward Fort Chaffee. Seven miles of this new freeway, between U.S. 71 and Arkansas 22, is scheduled for completion in 2014.
High Priority Corridor
Interstate 49, from I-40 north along former I-540, is part of High Priority Corridor 1 and 72: North-South Corridor.
A couple of new interchanges were built on Interstate 540 north of Interstate 40 since the freeway was first built. The first new interchange (old Exit 21 / new Exit 207), constructed during 2003-04, serves the town of Alma. The folded-diamond interchange joins I-540 with Collum Lane (County Road 19).1 A second new interchange was created for Exit 82 (I-49 Exit 268), Promenade Boulevard.
Western Terminus - U.S. 271 - south of Fort Smith, Arkansas
Perspective from Interstate 540 west
The last Interstate 540 mainline exit is at Exit 14. The interchange serves U.S. 271 north into Fort Smith and Arkansas 253 south to Bonanza. The original segment of Interstate 540, from the Oklahoma state line to Interstate 40, sees its mile markers backwards from the standard south to north or east to west convention. Thus, the southern most interchange is Exit 14 instead of Exit 1. The zero mile-marker is posted at Interstate 40 instead of at the Oklahoma state line. Photo taken by Martin McMahon (12/09/02).
Continuing beyond Exit 14 of Interstate 540 sees U.S. 271 enter the divided highway and proceed to the state line. This photograph looks at a southbound reassurance shield at the Oklahoma border. The asphalt roadway is in the Sooner State. The next significant destination for the highway is in 29 miles at the Poteau. Photo taken by Martin McMahon (12/09/02).
Perspective from U.S. 271 north
Northbound on U.S. 271, just prior to the Arkansas/Oklahoma state line. If Interstate 540 begins where the asphalt changes to concrete, it is a hidden start. The eastern terminus of Oklahoma 9 occurs at the state line with U.S. 271. The cross-state highway begins at the Texas state line near the town of Badge. Photo taken by Martin McMahon (12/09/02).
Perspective from Interstate 540 east
The first northbound exit of Interstate 540, the northern terminus of Arkansas 253 at Exit 14. This interchange sees U.S. 271 leave for its final two plus miles into Fort Smith itself. The northern terminus of the US highway occurs with Business U.S. 71 at Zero Street. Photo taken by Martin McMahon (12/09/02).
The first Interstate 540 reassurance shield, posted just past the Exit 14 departure of U.S. 271. Interstate 540 will pick up U.S. 71 in two miles, carrying the US highway through to Interstate 40. Photo taken by Martin McMahon (12/09/02).
Perspective from U.S. 271 south
U.S. 271 southbound at the Exit 14 diamond interchange of Interstate 540. The directional signs indicate that Interstate 540 travels to the north only, strongly suggesting this exit marks the terminus point. Continuing straight takes one onto the southbound beginning of Arkansas 253. Photo taken by Martin McMahon (12/09/02).
Prior to the 1999 extension, Interstate 540 terminated at Interstate 40 seven miles from the Oklahoma state line. This vidcap shows Interstate 40 eastbound where Interstate 540 began its south-southwesterly trek toward Fort Smith. The original 14 mile segment of Interstate 540 is signed east-west. Vidcap taken 05/28/95.
Perspective from Interstate 40/540 west
Westbound Interstate 40 and U.S. 71 southbound, one mile ahead of their split at I-540. U.S. 71 departs I-40 via I-540 south. A Business U.S. 71 counterpart comes into play at Exit 1 of I-540. The business route represents the original U.S. 71 overlap with U.S. 64 on a parallel alignment of I-40 to the east. Photo taken by Eric Stuve (12/19/02).
0.25 miles from the former and 2014 eastern terminus of Interstate 540/Exit 7. There are two Van Buren exits of Interstate 540 before the freeway crosses into Fort Smith over the Arkansas River. Photo taken by Eric Stuve (12/19/02).
The westbound beginning of Interstate 540 departs Interstate 40 west. The next westbound interchange also serves Van Buren as it connects with Arkansas 59 at Exit 5. Interstate 540 also has an interchange with this state highway at its Exit 3. Photo taken by Eric Stuve (12/19/02).
Historical Perspective from Interstate 540 south at Alma
This photo showed Interstate 540 south at its interchange with Interstate 40 northeast of Fort Smith. Although this interchange was never a terminal point for Interstate 540, it was the former southern end of Arkansas 540, and it currently serves as a temporary end of I-49 south from Fayetteville. Photo taken by Jeff Royston (08/15/04).
Former Northern Terminus - U.S. 62 - Rogers, Arkansas (Exit 86)
Historical perspective from Interstate 540 north
Two views of the 2000-north end of Interstate 540 at Exit 86/Arkansas 102, which is the departure of U.S. 62 eastbound to Rogers. The U.S. 71 freeway continued northward another seven miles around Bentonville. Photos taken by Jeremy Lance (Fall 2000).
Historical perspective from U.S. 71 south
U.S. 71 southbound at Exit 86/U.S. 62 east/Arkansas 102. This exit marked the 2000-extent of Interstate 540. Photo taken by Martin McMahon (12/09/02).
Backlin, David. "New Interchange u/c I-540 (AR)." Online posting, misc.transport.road, September 17, 2003.