Proposed transportation package: Project would help build Red Mountain interchange

By Michelle Dupler, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 21, 2013 

OLYMPIA -- West Richland Mayor Donna Noski was jubilant when she heard full funding for a new Interstate 82 interchange at Red Mountain was included in a proposed transportation package unveiled in Olympia on Wednesday.

"Yahoo!" she said.

The $30 million project long has topped the priority list of Tri-City leaders, who see the interchange as a way to kickstart economic development and tourism in the region.

"What it means to West Richland is certainly opening an economic corridor for us that is critically important," said Noski, who expects the interchange will spur retail and light industrial development in West Richland and help the town of about 12,000 people grow beyond its current "bedroom community" status.

"It has really stymied our growth not having interstate access," she said.

But the $27.5 million tentatively allocated for the interchange project -- which would include a roundabout at highways 224 and 225 in Benton City, plus the interchange itself -- is contingent on the passage of a 10-cent gas tax and a 0.7 percent tax on the value of motor vehicles that recession-weary voters could be reluctant to swallow.

Reactions among the Herald's Facebook followers Wednesday afternoon were mixed, with some vowing to stop driving if they had to pay more vehicle-related taxes, and others saying the taxes are the cost of having good roads in the state.

Raising or creating taxes requires either a two-thirds vote of the Legislature or a simple majority of lawmakers and vote by the people. Democrats hold a majority in the state House of Representatives, but not enough seats to overcome the two-thirds requirement if Republicans dig in their heels on taxes as they have for the past several sessions.

Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee, said in a statement that the conversation about paying for transportation projects needs to start with reforms rather than taxes.

"The reality is, people can't afford to pay more at the pump right now -- especially those out of work or who have to commute long distances because their communities have been decimated by the economy and land-use restrictions," Orcutt said. "We need to see how we can make our tax dollars go further before we reach further into taxpayers' pockets."

The Majority Coalition in the Senate, in which two Democrats joined with 24 Republicans to form a one-vote majority in the 49-seat body, also would make achieving a two-thirds consensus challenging unless enough Republicans are willing to go against the party line on taxes.

Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, on Wednesday called on Democrats and Republicans to work together to meet the state's transportation needs.

"The 'Connecting Washington' package will link the communities of our state to each other and to the rest of the world," she said. "From the child going to school each day to the farmer whose crops travel through our ports to markets abroad, this package is about the infrastructure and jobs that will bring Washingtonians together."

Democrats said the package would fund nearly $10 billion in transportation projects, including the Red Mountain interchange.

The Associated Press reports that other projects include $1 billion for connecting Highway 167 near Tacoma and Highway 509 near Seatac to Interstate 5, $450 million to complete the Columbia River crossing, and several hundred million dollars to extend the Interstate 405 high occupancy/toll lanes from Bellevue to Renton in both directions.

Clibborn said the brief list of projects released Wednesday is incomplete and about $800 million is not yet allocated toward projects.

"There are projects that may get more money moving forward," she said.

The gas tax would account for about $2.5 billion of funding, and the motor vehicle tax about $2.1 billion.

The package also proposes a 0.3 percent increase in the state's hazardous substance tax for about $900 million in revenue; $5 car tab fee and $12 title transfer fee for a total of $196 million; 15 percent increase in the commercial gross weight fee for $102 million in revenue; and a $25 fee on bicycle purchases over $500 for about $1 million in revenue.

About $3 billion in bonds would make up the remainder of the $10 billion.

The package likely will get a hearing in the House Transportation Committee next week.

While a ground-breaking on the Red Mountain interchange is far from a certainty, Tri-City leaders Wednesday celebrated just being included on the list.

"I am highly supportive of Red Mountain," Benton County Commissioner Shon Small told the Herald. "I do know there are definitely some positive impacts if we can start (construction)."

Tim Arntzen, executive director of the Port of Kennewick, said the interchange will be crucial to development of the west end of the port district -- including the former Tri-City Raceway the port bought and is considering developing for wine-related businesses.

"If we had that access, if you believe in miracles, it would be a small miracle as far as transformation of that property," Arntzen said. "It would be the catalyst and then some to move this thing forward. ... The tax element of it -- nobody really willingly east of the mountains wants to have a new tax brought on them. I understand that aspect well. It is one of those things we realize is a critical transportation piece that needs to fit into the puzzle here."

w Michelle Dupler: 582-1543; mdupler@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @mduplertch

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