N.C. 54 runs for 12 miles in Wake County, entering from Durham County on the eastern edge of Research Triangle Park and ending at I-440 exit 3 in west Raleigh.
N.C. 54 first entered Wake County in 1954, replacing U.S. 70A in Wake and Durham counties. It originally ran along Chapel Hill Road, most of which remains N.C. 54 today, and ended at Hillsborough Street (then U.S. 1) near the state fairgrounds. In 1962 N.C. 54 was extended east to its current end at the Beltline, as U.S. 1 was rerouted to the new freeway.
What eventually became I-40 in western Wake was originally designed as the "N.C. 54 Freeway" before it was designated an Interstate. However, the freeway was designated I-40 before its completion, so the N.C. 54 routing did not change when I-40 opened. The only rerouting of N.C. 54 since 1962 occurred in 1997, when N.C. 54 was rerouted to bypass downtown Cary along Maynard Road. The town banned trucks inside the Maynard loop at the same time, so the rerouting was an attempt to keep trucks along a consistent route through the town.
N.C. 54 is relatively lightly-traveled compared to its northern Interstate neighbor, but whenever a rush-hour accident occurs on I-40 gridlock quickly ensues on N.C. 54.
N.C. 54 is the only current state or US highway within the Raleigh city limits that has never been signed along the Beltline. It has never extended beyond the freeway, although Hillsborough Street inside the Beltline was once U.S. 1 Business.
The highway was once the only connection between N.C. State in Raleigh and UNC in Chapel Hill until I-40 was finished in Durham County in 1988. Anyone traveling between one school and the other took a stretch of N.C. 54 as part of the trip.