When officials gather this morning to open the first section of the new Interstate 540 extension in western Wake County, they will surely describe the project as being crucial to the Triangle's future growth.
Perhaps the best evidence of the road's power is that it is already helping spur an activity that has been in short supply in recent years: new home construction.
Through the first 10 months of the year, the number of new single-family building permits issued in Apex and Holly Springs - the two municipalities likely to benefit the most from the extension - are up sharply.
Apex issued 209 permits through October, up 67 percent from the same period a year ago, according to Wake County data. Holly Springs issued 255 permits, a 60 percent increase over last year.
Those increases are all the more striking given that new permits for all of Wake County are down 6 percent through October. Permits are down 10 percent in Cary and 22 percent in Raleigh.
"I think clearly the 540 extension is driving some of this," said Tim Minton, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Raleigh-Wake County. "These are two places where we're actually building some roads right now."
The 18.8-mile toll road, the state's first, is expected to be completed by December 2012. The first section, a 3.7-mile stretch called the Triangle Parkway, opens to traffic today and will be toll-free until Jan. 3.
Once finished, the road will connect Holly Springs to the region's biggest jobs center, Research Triangle Park, meaning homebuilders along the extension now have a much more attractive sales pitch to buyers worried about their commute.
"When we're talking to potential buyers we show them where 540 is coming into the 55 location," said David Mason, general manager for 12 Oaks, a residential development just west of the N.C. 55 Bypass in Holly Springs.
A court-appointed receiver took over 12 Oaks in 2009 after its developer, L.M. Sandler & Sons of Virginia Beach, Va., ran into trouble. The project, which has nearly 1,400 home sites, also includes a golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus' design firm.
Mason said that of the 144 homes that have sold in the community, 101 sold this year. Full build-out of the project is likely to take eight to 10 years if the project is able to average 150 sales a year.
"It's been really great and it's in spite of the economy and of other things," Mason said of the recent sales activity.
Excitement over the development possibilities being created by the new road extension isn't limited to the residential sector.
Kite Realty has plans to build a 550,000-square-foot retail center near the N.C. 55 Bypass, where the extension of I-540 will connect by next December. The project, called New Hill Place, is to be anchored by a Target and will include 10 large stores, 29 smaller stores, a movie theater and a bowling alley.