Beginning at U.S. 271 near the Oklahoma state line, Interstate 540 travels northeast through Fort Smith to I-40 at Van Buren. The urban spur bypasses both Downtown Fort Smith and the Van Buren city center while providing part of a regional route between Poteau, Oklahoma and Fayetteville via Interstate 49. Counter intuitive to standard Interstate numbering, mile markers and exit numbers along Interstate 540 increase southward from I-40 to U.S. 271.
Interstate 540 was truncated south from Bentonville to Van Buren on April 21, 2014 when a 30 day project commenced to replace signs north of I-40 at Alma with I-49.
Originally commissioned as a spur from I-40 at Van Buren southwest into Fort Smith, Arkansas, Interstate 540 was signed with east / west cardinal direction banners. The designation was extended southward to the Oklahoma state line as approved by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) on October 28, 1978.
Interstate 540 was eventually extended northward along the corridor linking I-40 with the Fulbright Expressway (U.S. 71) at Fayetteville. Built in stages, the freeway was initially signed as Arkansas Highway 540. The Fayetteville bypass for U.S. 71 was previously completed in 1971.
The first segment of AR 540 opened to traffic in 1995 between Interstate 40 and Mountainburg. A subsequent extension lengthened the route north to Fayetteville in 1998. With major cuts through the Boston Mountains and the Bobby Hopper Tunnel, this freeway was considered an engineering marvel. Named for a former Arkansas Highway Commission director and located between Exit 34 (220) and 45 (231), the 0.3 mile long tunnel opened in 1999.
Arkansas initially requested designating AR 540 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 extension of Interstate 540 was made official on January 8, 1999, when the route was completed from I-40 north to Fayetteville. I-540 was signed with north/south cardinal directions along the new section to Fayetteville and resigned with north/sound banners along the original spur into Fort Smith. U.S. 71 remained independent of I-540 north of Alma 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 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, 20002 that the
ultimate goal is to upgrade the entire Highway 71 corridor in western Arkansas to an Interstate.
Interstate 540 was lengthened again in 2001 to the U.S. 71 / Exit 93 in the city of Bentonville (perhaps best known as home of Wal-Mart).