Interstate 540 begins at U.S. 271 near the Oklahoma state line 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.
Counterintuitive to the standard Interstate numbering convention, mile markers and exit numbers along Interstate 540 increase southward from I-40 to U.S. 271.
Originally commissioned as a spur from I-40 at Van Buren southwest into Fort Smith, Arkansas, Interstate 540 was signed as an east-west route. The designation was extended southward to the Oklahoma state line as approved by AASHTO on October 28, 1978.
Interstate 540 was eventually extended northward in lieu of designating the new corridor linking I-40 with the Fulbright Expressway (U.S. 71) at Fayetteville as Interstate 49. Built in stages, the freeway was initially signed as Arkansas 540. The Fayetteville bypass for U.S. 71 was completed in 1971.
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. With major cuts through the Boston Mountains coupled with the Bobby Hopper Tunnel, this freeway was considered an engineering marvel. Located between Exits 34 (220) and 45 (231), The 0.3 mile long tunnel opened in 1999 and is named for a former Arkansas Highway Commission director.
Arkansas applied to AASHTO for designating the new freeway corridor between I-40 at Van Buren and U.S. 71 Business north of Fayetteville as Interstate 49. AASHTO denied that request on April 25, 1997 and subsequently approved Interstate 540 for the corridor on November 14, 1997. A condition of the approval was that it would be initially signed as a future route.
The Interstate 540 extension was made official on January 8, 1999, when the completed route was opened from I-40 north to Fayetteville. I-540 was signed with north/south cardinal directions along the new section to Fayetteville and resigned along the original spur into Fort Smith. At no time did I-540 or Arkansas 540 carry the U.S. 71 designation; U.S. 71 stays along the Boston Mountains Scenic Byway to the east.
Prior to 2014, Interstate 540 combined with I-40 west five miles from Alma to Van Buren. Photo taken by Jeff Royston (08/15/04).
The AASHTO Route Numbering subcommittee approved further extension of Interstate 540 north from U.S. 71 Business to U.S. 62 in Rogers on April 7, 2000. 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.”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).