Interstate 540 in North Carolina, commissioned in 1997, is a growing freeway serving northern Wake County and Raleigh-Durham International Airport. The freeway currently (as of July 2007) connects Interstate 40 with U.S. 64-264 at Knightdale via a 24-mile arc that travels north of Raleigh. A state route extension, North Carolina 540, begins at the western terminus of Interstate 540 and extends south to North Carolina 55 near Carpenter. In its ultimate configuration, Interstate 540 is planned to become part of an outer belt route for Raleigh, serving Wake County (with possible sections on the southern half built as toll roads).
The first section of Interstate 540, connecting Interstate 40 Exit 283 near Raleigh-Durham International Airport with U.S. 70 at Exit 4, opened on January 21, 1997.7 This was the first section of the nascent belt route to be signed as Interstate 540. Subsequent segments were opened in phases as Interstate 540 was extended east as follows:
U.S. 70 (Exit 4) to Leesville Road (Exit 7): opened December 11, 19991,5,6,7
Leesville Road (Exit 7) to North Carolina 50/Creedmoor Road (Exit 9): opened December 21, 20001,5,6,7
North Carolina 50/Creedmoor Road (Exit 9) to Falls of Neuse Road (Exit 14): opened June 29, 20011,5,6,7
Falls of Neuse Road (Exit 14) U.S. 1/Capital Boulevard (Exit 16) and Triangle Town Boulevard (Exit 17, eastbound only): opened August 12, 20021,3,4,5,6,7
U.S. 1/Capital Boulevard (Exit 16) and Triangle Town Boulevard (Exit 17, eastbound only) to U.S. 64-264 (Exit 26): opened January 16, 2007; construction began on September 8, 2003; the FHWA granted final approval of the Northern Wake Expressway as Interstate 540 by letter agreement on December 22, 20081,3,4,5,6,7
On July 14, 2007, North Carolina 540 opened from Interstate 40 Exit 283 south to North Carolina 55 in the Research Triangle Park near Carpenter; construction began in February 2004.3,4,8 Originally planned as part of Interstate 540, this extension was signed as a state route because future extensions to the south and east will likely be toll roads. See the future aspirations section below for more on the future extension.
In its current configuration, Interstate 540 allows westbound motorists from Interstate 95, Rocky Mount, and points north and east to bypass Knightdale by way the new U.S. 64 bypass and the associated connection via Interstate 540. The bypass is now complete between Interstate 40 and U.S. 64-264, allowing through-traffic to bypass the Capital City altogether when traveling east-west.1, 5, 6
The impact of Interstate 540 has been felt on nearby roads as well. Construction activities expanded Interstate 40 between North Carolina 147/Durham Freeway (Exit 279) and Interstate 540 (Exit 283) to seven lanes on Labor Day Weekend 2003, and an eighth lane was added in October 2003. This project was slated to conclude in June 2003, but it continued into 2004 in order to construct the bridge overpass for the Interstate 540 and North Carolina 540 interchange.2
With the first 26 miles of Interstate 540 open and another 4.5 miles of North Carolina 540 now open to traffic, the focus is on completing the rest of the route. The dates of completion depend entirely on whether the freeways are built as toll roads. If bonds paid back by toll proceeds are not available, then construction of the remaining sections of the 540 belt route may be delayed for as many as 20 years from now (July 2007) according to cost projections.8
North Carolina 540/Western Wake Expressway (12.6 miles) - from North Carolina 55 southeast to U.S. 1 and North Carolina 55 in Apex: anticipated completion Fall 2011 if approved as a toll road9
Southern Wake Expressway (16.5 miles) - from North Carolina 55 east of Apex to Interstate 40 near Garner: no start date has been set, but completion is expected in 2015 with tolls and 2032 without tolls 4
Eastern Wake Expressway - from Interstate 40 near Garner north to U.S. 64-264 at Knightdale: no start date has been set, but completion is expected in 2015 with tolls and 2022 without tolls 4
North Carolina 147/Triangle Expressway (not a part of the 540 beltway, 3.4 miles) - from North Carolina 540 at Davis Drive interchange northwest to Interstate 40 at North Carolina 147 interchange - anticipated completion in Fall 2010 if approved as a toll road10
This means that no additional segments are planned for construction until after 2008 now that the most recent spate of construction has ended. The section of Interstate 540 that is proposed as the "Western Wake Expressway" from Holly Springs to the Research Triangle Park is not slated to commence construction until 2012, and the southern and western sections of the belt route may not be built until some time thereafter.4 Future projects hope to extend Interstate 540 south of U.S. 64-264 to rejoin Interstate 40 southeast of Raleigh. However, funding is limited, so tolls may be considered for unconstructed segments. Further construction is contingent upon funding availability.6
To accelerate that timeline, some have proposed constructing the western and southern sections of Interstate 540 as a toll road in order to have the road completed within ten years (by 2015).4,6,9,10 Such a toll highway would be a first for North Carolina and would be managed by the North Carolina Turnpike Authority. Without the tolls, the freeway is scheduled for completion in 2022 for the western section and 2032 for the southern section. The idea of a toll road in North Carolina (which has no existing toll roads as of July 2007) is receiving mixed reviews: some politicians are wary of the concept, while the executive director of the Turnpike Authority is excited about the prospect.
It is fair to say that Interstate 540 has reached its maximum length until decisions are finalized on building the various remaining beltway sections as toll or free roads. More than likely, the toll sections will not initially be signed as Interstate unless laws governing tolls on Interstate highways change. This is the reason why the newest section of the 540 belt route was opened as North Carolina 540 rather than Interstate 540.
North Carolina 540 was signed in July 2007 on the 4.5-mile section from Interstate 40 south to North Carolina 55. The last-minute conversion of this section of Interstate 540 to North Carolina 540 was completed at the request of the North Carolina Turnpike Authority. This way, the Authority can toll the portion of North Carolina 540 between North Carolina 54 and North Carolina 55 as well as the extension of the belt route southeast toward Apex. This portion of the belt route is known as the Western Wake Expressway, and it links with the Triangle Expressway. If built as toll roads, both roads would be known as "parkways" rather than "expressways" given the planning maps shown on the North Carolina Turnpike Authority webpage.9, 10 The Western Wake Expressway, once completed, is most likely to be built as a toll facility, and toll roads cannot be signed as Interstates unless the road is entirely funded by tolls according to federal law (another example of the applicability of this law is Virginia 895). In the cases of North Carolina 540 and Virginia 895, portions of the future toll road used federal funds for construction.8
Together, Interstate 540 and North Carolina 540 form the first parts of an eventual beltway around Raleigh. Since the section designated as Interstate 540 only connects to an Interstate at one end and not the other end, the "beltway" received an odd prefix designation. However, the freeway's designation as Interstate 540 was originally planned to be changed to Interstate 640 once the northeastern half of the beltway is completed in order to comply with numbering guidelines for spur routes (odd first digit) versus belt routes (even first digit).
Evidence of this planned numbering change was shown on the official North Carolina's Strategic Highway Corridors map as of November 12, 2004 (the plan included a map and explanation of the Interstate 540/640 proposed swap). However, it is not clear that this renumbering will occur, especially since renaming Interstate 540 as Interstate 640 would result in confusion when the freeway is renumbered upon completion of the Eastern Wake Expressway. According to Brian LeBlanc's Wake County Roads - Interstate 540, the renumbering will not occur, and Interstate 540 will retain its number even after the segment between U.S. 64-264 and Interstate 40 is opened to traffic. However, it will be awhile (2022 if free, 2015 if tolled) until the Eastern Wake Expressway is built, so there's plenty of time for officials to make up and change their minds on the matter of 540 versus 640.
Western Terminus - Interstate 40 - near Research Triangle Park, North Carolina
Perspective from Interstate 540 west
Westbound Interstate 540 reaches Exit 2, Airport Parkway to Raleigh-Durham International Airport. The final exit (for now) is Exits 1B-A, Junction Interstate 40 east to Raleigh and west to Durham. Photo taken 07/12/05.
The final exit on eastbound Interstate 540 is the junction with Interstate 40. Use Interstate 40 east to North Carolina 147/Durham Expressway and west to Interstate 440, the Raleigh Beltline. Photo taken 07/12/05.
Westbound Interstate 540 at Exit 1/Interstate 40. All traffic is defaulted onto the collector/distributor roadway. To the left the grassy median lays in wait for the future mainline of Interstate 540. The eastbound Interstate 40 ramp to Interstate 540 east can be seen on the horizon. Interstate 540 for now will act as the main connector for Durham and north and west Raleigh metropolitan area to U.S. 64 and Interstate 95, Rocky Mount, and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Photo taken 07/12/05.
Now on the future collector-distributor lanes, the ramp to Interstate 40 splits: Exit 1B transitions to westbound Interstate 40 to Durham, while Exit 1A transitions to eastbound Interstate 40 to Raleigh and points east via a loop ramp. Photo taken 07/12/05.
The collector-distributor lane temporarily ends here, at the ramp to eastbound Interstate 40 (Exit 1A). For now, this marks the southern terminus of Interstate 540. By December 2007, the freeway will be extended south to North Carolina 55. Photo taken 07/12/05.
Perspective from Interstate 40 east
Interstate 40 eastbound at Exit 283, the eastbound beginning of Interstate 540. The first interchange of the outer belt freeway is Exit 2 with the Aviation Parkway. This limited access highway serves Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) and connects Interstate 540 with Airport Boulevard (accessible from I-40 Exit 284). Vidcap taken 02/15/01.
Perspective from Interstate 40 west
Interstate 40 is six lanes wide as it travels through the Exit 284/Airport Boulevard diamond interchange. Pictured here is the one-mile Exit 284B temporary overhead for Interstate 540 east. Photo taken by Chris Patriarca (06/13/03).
An exit-only lane facilitates traffic movements from Interstate 40 west to Interstate 540 east. No control points are featured for Interstate 540 at present, just the connection with U.S. 70 at Exit 4. Photo taken by Chris Patriarca (06/13/03).
The ramp structure coming in to view, the Interstate 540 eastbound beginning departs from Interstate 40 west. This sign bridge already has brackets and lightning fixtures for the Exit 293A eventual guide sign for Interstate 540/640 west. Photo taken by Chris Patriarca (06/13/03).
Construction at the Interstate 40/540 Exit 293 interchange is evident in this westward photograph. The Interstate 540 overcrossing appears to be complete, with the Interstate 40 east to Interstate 540 east flyover overhead. Photo taken by Chris Patriarca (06/13/03).
Eastern Terminus - U.S. 64-264 - Knightdale, North Carolina
Perspective from U.S. 64-264 east
Traveling east on U.S. 64-264 after the Interstate 440 interchange, this is the first reassurance shield after Exit 420, New Hope Road. A mileage sign behind the reassurance shield shows the distance to the upcoming exits, including the pending junction with Interstate 540 (at Exit 423). Photo taken 05/30/07.
The aforementioned mileage sign provides the distance to the next three exits: Exit 422, Hodge Road; Exit 423, Junction Interstate 540 west to U.S. 1; and Exit 425, Smithfield Road. Photo taken 05/30/07.
Before crossing the Neuse River, this set of signs is posted on eastbound U.S. 64-264 for Exit 422, Hodge Road, followed by Interstate 540 west to U.S. 1. The control cities for Interstate 540 west are Wake Forest via U.S. 1 north and Raleigh-Durham International Airport via Interstate 540 west. Photo taken 05/30/07.
Reaching Exit 422 for Hodge Road after crossing the Neuse River, the next exit along eastbound U.S. 64-264 is Exit 423, Junction Interstate 540 west to U.S. 1 and Raleigh Durham International Airport. Photo taken 05/30/07.
Eastbound U.S. 64-264 reaches Exit 423, Junction Interstate 540 west to U.S. 1/Wake Forest and Raleigh Durham International Airport. The right lane becomes exit only, while the left three lanes continue east toward Zebulon. U.S. 64 meets Interstate 95 near Rocky Mount, while U.S. 264 meets Interstate 95 and U.S. 117 near Wilson. Photo taken 05/30/07.
Looking at the exit ramp for Interstate 540, the lanes split for an eventual connection to the Eastern Wake Expressway (which is scheduled for completion in 2022 as a free road or in 2015 as a toll road). Stay left to connect to Interstate 540 west. Photo taken 05/30/07.
Perspective from Interstate 540 west
The transition ramp from eastbound U.S. 64-264 merges with the ramp from westbound U.S. 64-264 to form westbound Interstate 540/Northern Wake Expressway. The main lanes that can be seen on the left of this picture are not currently in use; they are stubs. Photo taken 05/30/07.
After joining the main lanes, the first exit on westbound Interstate 540 is Exit 24, Junction Business U.S. 64 to Knightdale and Raleigh. In the shadow of this overhead is the first reassurance shield. Photo taken 05/30/07.
The first reassurance shield on Interstate 540 west after the U.S. 64-264 interchange is a state-named shield, a rarity in North Carolina and unusual considering it was placed in 2007. Photo taken 05/30/07.
Historic Eastern Terminus - U.S. 1/Capital Boulevard and Triangle Town Boulevard - Neuse, North Carolina (north of Raleigh at the Triangle Town Center)
Perspective from U.S. 1 south
Busy U.S. 1 south approaches the junction with Interstate 540/Northern Wake Expressway near Neuse, midway between Wake Forest and Raleigh. At the time this photo was taken, Interstate 540 only extended west toward the international airport and Durham. However, construction is underway to extend the freeway southeast to U.S. 64-264 and back to Interstate 40. Once the loop portion of the freeway is constructed, Interstate 540 is planned to be redesignated as Interstate 640. Photo taken 07/12/05.
This view shows the interchange between U.S. 1 and Interstate 540 looking south toward Raleigh. A flyover ramp connects eastbound Interstate 540 with northbound U.S. 1. The connection from Triangle Town Center in North Raleigh to the U.S. 64/264 bypass in Knightdale is expected to open on December 31, 2006, or in early 2007. Photo taken 07/12/05.
Southbound U.S. 1 meets the ramp to westbound Interstate 540 at this ramp. Future ramps to eastbound Interstate 540 were not yet open at this time. Note the control city of Raleigh for Interstate 540 east, as well as destinations of to Interstate 40 and U.S. 70. Photo taken 07/12/05.
This overhead only provides a pull-through sign for U.S. 1 south to downtown Raleigh, but it will soon have a companion sign for the connection to Interstate 540 east to U.S. 64-264 and Interstate 40 southeast. Photo taken 07/12/05.
Perspective from U.S. 1 north
Now traveling north on U.S. 1, the connection to Interstate 540/Northern Wake Expressway west to Durham requires use of a right exit onto a loop ramp. U.S. 1 continues north as an expressway. Photo taken 07/12/05.
Northbound U.S. 1 reaches the connecting ramp to Interstate 540/Northern Wake Expressway west to Durham, U.S. 70, and Interstate 40. U.S. 1 continues north toward Wake Forest. Photo taken 07/12/05.
Perspective from Interstate 540 west
Merging onto westbound Interstate 540 from U.S. 1 north, the freeway begins its 16-mile journey to Interstate 40 near Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Photo taken 07/12/05.
The first exit on westbound Interstate 540 after U.S. 1 is Exit 14, Falls of Neuse Road. Photo taken 07/12/05.
"DOT To Start Working On New Section of I-540." WRAL.com - Traffic, September 5, 2003.