With the Federal Highway Administration's filing of the Record of Decision, the North Carolina Turnpike Authority and the state Department of Transportation can start acquiring land for the highway’s right of way, obtaining environmental permits and planning for construction.
The final leg of the toll road, also known as the Triangle Expressway, will stretch 28 miles from the N.C. Highway 55 Bypass in Apex to U.S. Highway 264 in Knightdale along a color-coded route known as orange-green-mint-green. It's estimated to cost $2.2 billion.
"We are excited to hit this milestone for a project that has been a priority for the local communities, metropolitan planning organization and regional business community," Turnpike Authority Executive Director Beau Memory said in a statement. "This is a critical step in advancing a project that has received nearly 30 local resolutions of support calling for the completion of the 540 outer loop."
The latest DOT plans call for awarding a contract to design and build the section between U.S. Highway 401 and Interstate 40 by the end of this year and two design-build contracts for the section between Apex and U.S. 401 by the middle of next year. Those two sections are expected to open by 2023.
Work on the last stretch, between I-40 and U.S. 264, wouldn't start until 2027.
"That will eliminate a lot of back-road driving for me," said exterminator Paul Moore, who often has to travel from Garner to Holly Springs. "I can get here in probably about 30 minutes. Now, it takes about an hour."
Holly Springs resident Laurie Maravillas said the toll road has already changed her driving habits, noting she had to use N.C. 55 all the time when she moved to town a decade ago.
"It's very helpful," Maravillas said. "I don't have to sit through stoplights all the time."
Holly Springs Mayor Dick Sears is glad the effort to build the highway is finally reaching the end of the road.
"We've had hundreds, really, of meetings with people. Most of the people want to complete the loop, and I think I'm one of those," Sears said.
Construction on the southeastern portion of N.C. 540 has been held up for years by environmental concerns, including an endangered mussel that forced state transportation officials to look at various alternative routes.
Engineers say they plan to work with scientists on breeding the mussels, allowing them to thrive in areas near the highway.
"We are extremely disappointed that DOT continues to push forward this wasteful $2.2 billion boondoggle, rather than take time to look at less expensive and less destructive alternative options," Kym Hunter, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in an email Friday. "We are reviewing the Record of Decision and intend to hold NCDOT accountable for any legal violations in court."
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