BURBANK -- A historically deadly stretch of Highway 12 through Burbank will become safer today when the new Humorist Road overpass opens and the final traffic signal is removed.
It's part of a $22.2 million project to improve safety along the highway between the Tri-Cities and Walla Walla, and it's the last major step for intersection changes in Burbank.
Four people have died along the corridor in the past five years.
"It's a huge safety improvement," said Moe Davari, Washington state Department of Transportation project engineer. "We have achieved our goal of separating traffic that goes 60 mph from cross traffic. Nobody has to worry about cross traffic anymore."
Three weeks ago, the traffic light on Highway 12 at Highway 124 was removed when the new highway interchange opened. The intersection was closed temporarily while the finishing touches were put on the interchange and Highway 124 overpass, and everything reopened May 14, except for the new ramp from westbound Highway 124 to Highway 12.
Work on that portion of the ramp opened Friday -- three days earlier than planned -- leading the way for the Humorist Road bridge to also be completed ahead of schedule.
Until today, drivers on Highway 12 still could turn at the light at Humorist Road. But this afternoon, the bridge that takes drivers on Humorist Road directly over the highway is expected to open.
When the bridge opens, the traffic signal will be turned off, meaning motorists no longer will need to stop on Highway 12 so drivers on Humorist Road can cross the highway or turn onto it.
"This is the last signal on U.S. 12 between Seattle and Walla Walla," Davari said.
Kyle Miller, principal at Columbia High School in Burbank, said, "I am totally thrilled with it. I think the whole project is pretty awesome. The Humorist Road bridge is going to be a huge impact on safety, especially for students and inexperienced drivers."
Miller said it's easy to spot a Burbank resident when they're sitting at the light at Humorist Road because once the light turns green, they don't take off immediately. Drivers who know that intersection know to look both ways to make sure traffic on Highway 12 has stopped, he said.
In February 2007, Walla Walla County sheriff’s Deputy Michael O. Estes was killed when he was hit by a commercial flat-bed truck as he tried to cross Highway 12 at Highway 124 while responding to a 911 hang-up call. Estes, 43, was the resident deputy in Burbank.
On Halloween night in 2008, Jorge Daniel Mendez, 17, and his older brother, Jesus Jaime “JJ” Mendez, 19, were killed when the car they were in was hit by a semi-truck as they tried to turn off the highway onto Humorist Road.
The semi-truck driver didn’t run a red light — troopers investigating determined his light likely was yellow when he entered the intersection — but the deadly crash was another reminder to residents and officials of the safety changes needed.
And in 2010, an elderly Wallula couple, Elmer and Mildred Riley, were killed when their car slammed into the back of a truck and cattle trailer stopped at the traffic light at Humorist Road.
Burbank residents accustomed to using Humorist Road to turn onto Highway 12 now must drive about a mile up to the Highway 124 interchange to get access to the highway.
Drivers on Highway 12 wanting to go to Humorist Road must use the new interchange, then turn south to Fifth Street and go east on Jantz Road to Humorist Road.
On- and off-ramps couldn't be built at Humorist Road because it's too close to the Highway 124 interchange, Davari said.
"There's no way to fit two full interchanges there," he said. "Normally, we ask for three miles" between interchanges.
Miller said he's used the new Highway 124 interchange, and it doesn't take much more time to go up to it instead of crossing at Humorist Road.
"It's not any more time than stopping at a red light is going to be," he said. "In terms of safety, it's a lot better."
The Humorist Road bridge has a sidewalk with an 8-foot-tall fence along one side that pedestrians and bicyclists also will be able to use.
Tammy Smith, a Burbank resident since 1976, said she's excited to see the changes finished, but also knows it's going to be a big adjustment for her and other residents.
"I have to get used to a different route and all the different turns," she said while pumping gas at the SunMart station on Humorist Road. "But it's going to be a huge safety improvement."
She said she's reminded of the dangers of those intersections every time she sees the crosses and flowers left by loved ones of those who died, "especially those two brothers."
But, Smith said she also knows she and other drivers will have to go out of their way now to get access to the SunMart or the Conoco gas station across the street.
Motorists on Highway 12 wanting to stop at either gas station no longer will be able to just turn off when they see the gas stations. Davari said signs will be posted alerting drivers that they have to take the Highway 124 exit now to get to either location.
"Yes, we are taking access away from the gas stations. They won't be happy," Davari said.
Some residents worry the SunMart will close, but Sun Pacific Energy officials say there's been no decision.
"There's been a lot of speculation out there ... but it's too soon to say," Jarrod Franson, operations manager at Sun Pacific Energy, told the Herald. "I'd love to say that it's not. ... It's going to depend on the community support."
Sun Pacific Energy owns and operates all the SunMart locations.
During the highway construction, Franson said the Burbank store has lost a lot of business and Sun Pacific Energy is worried about the future when the intersection closes completely.
A Herald call to the owner of the Conoco was not immediately returned Tuesday.
Selland Construction Inc. of Wenatchee was awarded the nearly $11.5 million contract to complete both intersection improvements and finished its work ahead of schedule. Construction began in March 2011 and was expected to continue through July of this year.
Drivers will see work for the next three or four weeks as asphalt in the Humorist Road intersection is torn up, the traffic signal is taken down and landscaping and other finishing touches are completed.
-- Paula Horton: 509-582-1556; firstname.lastname@example.org