Further extension of Interstate 540 east began with construction commencing on September 8, 2003.6 A ribbon cutting ceremony held on January 16, 2007 preceded the formal opening of the 540 Outer Loop from Capital Boulevard (Exit 16) southeast to U.S. 64/264 (Exit 26) at Knightdale.7 NCDOT resubmitted the 9.5 mile link to Knightdale for Interstate status to the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHTO) on November 5, 2008. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) then granted final approval for the designation on December 22, 2008, expanding I-540 to 26 miles in length.
Further changes took place at the east end, with the U.S. 64/264 bypass around Knightdale redesignated as Interstate 495, a route slated to connect the Beltline in Raleigh with I-95 outside Rocky Mount. NCDOT officially codified their plans to maintain the I-540 designation as part of the request for I-495, despite I-540 concluding with Interstates at both ends. I-495 was subsequently redesignated as Interstate 87, following AASHTO approval of the new route for U.S. 64 between Raleigh and Williamston.
Increasing traffic demands associated with the Northern Wake Expressway fueled expansion activities along Interstate 40 between I-540 (Exit 283) and NC 147 / Durham Freeway (Exit 279). Widening of this stretch to seven lanes was completed by Labor Day weekend in 2003. An eighth lane was added in October 2003. This project was slated to conclude in June 2003, but work to construct bridges for interchange with I-540 and NC 540 extended into 2004.8
North Carolina Route 540
The North Carolina General Assembly approved the creation of the North Carolina Turnpike Authority in 2005. The organization was charged with studying potential corridors for the state’s first modern toll roads and coordinating construction efforts to build them. One of the first projects considered was the Western Wake Expressway, the long planned western component of the I-540 loop around Raleigh. The authority initially sought the authorization for tolls on a loop paralleling NC 55 to the west around Apex and Cary. These efforts took place while construction was underway along a four mile extension of I-540 from I-40 to NC 55.
The Turnpike Authority reversed course with plans for the Western Wake Expressway, instead opting to toll the entire stretch of the 540 Outer Loop south of Interstate 40. Their rational was that the authority also had jurisdiction over the tolled extension of the Durham Freeway (NC 147) under development from I-40 south through RTP to Davis Drive. Had the Authority not requested this change, the new Toll NC 147 would have ended at the toll free section of I-540 being built west to NC 55. The change resulted in a continuous tolled highway.
Federal law prohibits spending of federal money on any tolled Interstate. I-540 was planned as a full Interstate and slated to receive 90% federal funding. However the advent of the tolled Western Wake Expressway changed the funding mechanism for the remainder of the route. As such, the FHWA did not permit NCDOT to designate the new roadway as an Interstate. NCDOT complied and renumbered the initial four mile stretch of I-540 leading southwest of I-40 as part of NC 540, with the tolling prefix applied west of NC 54. This was done to provide continuity with Interstate 540, despite its violation of an internal department rule against using the same number for different types of highways within the state system.
Actions to number the new toll road as NC 540 took place only two weeks before the road was set to open, leading DOT crews to make quick changes on signage posted already with I-540 markers. Additional changes were needed in that the mile markers and exit numbers for NC 540 were found to be 19 miles too low because of a measurement error by the DOT GIS mapping unit for the intended full loop.
Construction on the initial 4.5 mile long section of the Western Wake Expressway began in February 2004. Costing $102 million to build, NC 540 opened from I-40/540 south to NC 55 at RTP near Carpenter on July 14, 2007.9 Tolling along the segment commenced on August 2, 2012 at 12:01 AM, 13 hours after a ribbon cutting ceremony held at the Outer Loop interchange with NC 55 for the opening of Toll NC 540 south to U.S. 64 at Apex as part of the TriEx. The TriEx opened previously as a 3.4 mile extension of NC 147 south from I-40 through RTP to NC 540 in January 2012.10
Another 5.8 miles of the Triangle Expressway were completed on December 20, 2012 at a cost of $30 million to $40 million under budget. This extended Toll NC 540 south to NC 55 just north of Holly Springs (Exit 54). Tolling commenced here on January 2, 2013, as interoperability agreements for N.C. Quickpass electronic tolling with Florida and Georgia were finalized. Work on the 18.8 million, $1.1 billion TriEx commenced in 2009.11