No matter where you live in the Triangle, you are going to have to deal with Interstate 40 sometime, since it is considered the “main street” connecting Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill as it starts from Wilmington, N.C. and heads west through the area to its eventual endpoint at Barstow, Calif. (No, we don’t know anyone who has driven all of I-40, and we’re not sure we want to know them, either.) I-40 is easy to navigate, since it usually runs east-west except for the part heading southeast of Raleigh toward Wilmington. But there are two perimeter loops around Raleigh off I-40 that will give you a headache in trying to understand them, and yes, you probably will have to deal with them too. We feel your pain, so let’s guide you through them here.
The official title for this road is the Northern Wake Expressway, but you’ll never hear this used by anyone not connected with a transportation department. Most call it the “Outer Loop.” It is planned to run approximately 50 miles around Raleigh, but that may not happen in our lifetimes, since even rights-of-way for some of the highway have not yet been determined.
I-540 starts off I-40 near the border of Durham and Wake counties just west of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. It goes north by northeast around the airport, over U.S. 70, N.C. 50 and U.S. 1 to end presently at Triangle Town Boulevard (Exit 17). Another nine miles going east from Exit 17 to the U.S. 64/264 bypass in Knightdale is slated to open in early 2007, but then again it was slated to open in November before missing that deadline, and by last summer prior to that deadline. As you can see, the dates when roads are expected to open and when they actually do open are often quite different around here.
As for the western-southwestern branch of I-540, construction is occurring south of its interchange with I-40 to extend it to N.C. 54 and should be complete by early spring of 2007, with a following section to N.C. 55 slated to open by August 2007. Beyond that point, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) said it did not have the money to build the extension of the road to I-40 south of Garner for years, or for extending the U.S. 64/264 portion to I-40 south of Garner either, so in response local elected officials have endorsed making those sections toll roads so that they can be on the fast track for construction. The North Carolina Turnpike Authority hopes to receive necessary approvals to get construction underway on them, but even the most optimistic guess would be that it would take at least five years to get all of I-540 finished.
Once it is complete, I-540 should provide a quicker route for people wanting to bypass Raleigh to go east or west, as well as easier ways to get north and south of the city and to access RDU airport. The thing is, no one seems to know when it will be finished. For an overview of the project and its status, visit the NCDOT site here.