Interstate 540 and North Carolina State Highway 540 share a 42-mile partially completed beltway that nearly encircles the greater Raleigh area. When completed, the freeway will total seventy miles. The completed sections include untolled I-540, which begins at Interstate 40's exit 283 in Durham County, travels north and east around North Raleigh, before turning south ending at the I-87/US 64/US 264 freeway in Knightdale, and tolled NC 540, which continues from I-40, travels through western Wake County, and terminates at NC 55 in Holly Springs. The completion of the loop has been delayed several times due to evaluating several routes in order to address environmental concerns near Garner.
I-540's planning dates back to the 1970s as the Northern Wake Expressway. However, in the 1980s, concerns about increased traffic in western Wake County led to the expressway becoming a new beltway around Raleigh. Originally planned to be renamed I-640, I-540 first opened in 1997, connecting I-40 to US 70. Over the next decade, several extensions were made:
- From US 70 (Exit 4) to Leesville Road (Exit 7) in 1999
- From Leesville Road (Exit 7) to Creedmoor Road (Exit 9) in 2000
- From Creedmoor Road (Exit 9) to Falls of Neuse Road (Exit 14) in 2001
- From Falls of Neuse Road (Exit 14) to Capital Boulevard (Exit 16) in 2002
- From Capital Boulevard (Exit 16) to I-87/US 64/US 264 (Exit 26) in 2007
In the years following the Falls of Neuse to Capital extension, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) realized that future sections of the roadway would not be opened until 2032 if paid for by state funds, leading to the decision to add tolls to the remainder of the loop. As part of the Triangle Expressway, the next section of the beltway (the Western Wake Expressway) was extended from I-40 to NC 55 (Exit 66), set to open as an extension of I-540. However, the North Carolina Turnpike Authority apparently never wanted any section of the Expressway to be signed as an Interstate. As a result, Future I-540 shields that had already been placed along the route were replaced with NC 540 shields just two weeks before the roadway was set to open. (Additionally, I-540, which at this point, was planned to travel completely around Raleigh, would have violated regulations regarding the signage of three-digit Interstates; an odd first digit designated a spur, while an even first digit designated a loop or bypass. This is why the roadway was originally planned to be renumbered as I-640, the last remaining designation within the state, as I-240, I-440, and I-840 were already taken by Asheville, Raleigh, and Greensboro, respectively.)
The next portion of the western leg of the outer loop began construction in 2009 and opened to traffic in two phases. The first, connecting NC 55 to US 64 (exit 59), opened in August 2012, while the other extended the freeway to its current western terminus at NC 55 Bypass near Holly Springs in December 2012.
April 2017 saw the addition of a new exit located between US 1 and NC 55 at Veridia Parkway (formerly known as Old Holly Springs-Apex Road), providing better connectivity to the freeway from Holly Springs. Another new interchange connecting to an extended Morrisville Parkway opened in early 2020.
In September 2017, the NCDOT installed ramp meters on the westbound entrance ramps at Leesville, Creedmoor, Six Forks, and Falls of Neuse Roads, making I-540 the first freeway in the state to use them. The ramp meters serve as a temporary means of reducing traffic congestion on the Interstate until the state can afford to widen it in 2025 or later.
The remaining 28 miles of the beltway, known as the Southern and Eastern Wake Freeways, will be constructed as a continuation of the NC 540 toll road and is intended to provide a freeway-to-freeway link between the towns of Knightdale and Holly Springs. The route chosen for the freeway, the Orange and Green Corridors, had been protected from development since the 1990s, with the freeway planned to finish construction by 2014 or 2015. However, the presence of an endangered species known as the dwarf wedge mussel occupying the Swift Creek watershed southeast of Garner prevented the construction schedule from moving forward. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service asked the NCDOT to consider alternate routes for the freeway, resulting in a total of seventeen different candidates for the final leg of the freeway. The most controversial of the routes was the Red Corridor, which if chosen, would result in cutting the town of Garner in half and the demolition of several hundred homes and businesses. In late 2010, residents accumulated over three thousand signatures on a petition in protest of the Red Corridor.
The Red Corridor was not addressed again until 2013 when the North Carolina General Assembly voted to once again consider it as an alternative to the Orange Corridor. However, in April 2016, it was decided that the freeway would use the Orange Route for the segment between NC 55 and I-40 as well as two sections of the Green Route and one section of the Mint Route for the remaining segment of the loop. The final environmental study was completed in December 2017, with construction on the first phase, between I-40/US 70 at the Wake/Johnston County border and the NC 55 bypass, beginning in November 2019; the segment will open in 2023. The final segment of the freeway, from I-40 to I-87, is scheduled to begin construction in 2026. The entire project will cost $2.2 billion.
|Exit Number||Intersecting Street Name||Destinations|
|1A||I-40 East||Raleigh, Wilmington|
|1B||I-40 West||Durham, Greensboro|
|2||Aviation Parkway||Raleigh-Durham International|
|3||Lumley Road||Raleigh-Durham International|
|4A||US 70 East (Glenwood Avenue)||Raleigh, Clayton, Goldsboro|
|4B||US 70 West (Glenwood Avenue)||Durham, Hillsborough, Burlington|
|9||NC 50 (Creedmoor Road)||Raleigh, Benson, Creedmoor|
|11||Six Forks Road||North Hills|
|14||Falls of Neuse Road||North Raleigh|
|16||US 1 (Capital Boulevard)||Raleigh, Wake Forest, Henderson|
|17||Triangle Town Boulevard||Triangle Town Center Mall|
|18||US 401 (Louisburg Road)||Louisburg, Raleigh, Fuquay-Varina|
|24||Business US 64 (Knightdale Boulevard)||Raleigh, Knightdale|
|26||I-87/US 64/US 264 (Knightdale Bypass)||Raleigh, Asheboro, Wilson, Rocky Mount|
|Future||Auburn Knightdale Road|
|Future||Rock Quarry Road|
|Future||Business US 70||Garner, Clayton, Smithfield|
|Future||White Oak Road||Garner|
|Future||I-40/US 70/Future I-42||Raleigh, Durham, Clayton, Goldsboro, Wilmington|
|Future||NC 50 (Benson Road)||Raleigh, Creedmoor, Benson|
|Future||Old Stage Road|
|Future||US 401 (Fayetteville Road)||Raleigh, Fayetteville|
|Future||Bells Lake Road|
|Future||Holly Springs Road|
|54||NC 55 Bypass||Holly Springs|
|56 A||US 1 North||Raleigh, Wake Forest|
|56 B||US 1 South||Sanford, Raeford|
|57||South Salem Street|
|59 A||US 64 East||Raleigh, Wilson, Rocky Mount|
|59 B||US 64 West||Asheboro, Siler City|
|62||Green Level West Road||Cary|
|64||Morrisville Parkway||Cary, Morrisville|
|66||NC 55||Holly Springs, Durham|
|69||NC 54||Raleigh, Chapel Hill|
In order to address the issue of high volumes of traffic on I-540, I-40, I-440, and I-87, NCDOT has proposed constructing tolled express lanes on each of the Interstates in order to add capacity. The express lanes on I-540 are planned to span the length of the northern 26 miles of the loop. Construction was originally planned to begin in 2025 but was delayed to an unspecified date due to funding issues.