Feds kill $30 million Red Mountain interchange — for now. There’s not enough traffic

West Richland and its neighbors are looking for a Plan B after federal highway officials indicated Interstate-82 traffic is too light to justify a new interchange at Red Mountain.

The proposed $30 million interchange has long been a priority for the city and the many partners who view it as a critical transportation link needed to spur development and support Red Mountain vineyards and wineries.

West Richland Mayor Brent Gerry said he’s disappointed the project doesn’t meet Federal Highway Administration requirements for a new freeway access.

It would have improved access to the Red Mountain growing area, improved safety on two-lane roads and helped West Richland manage the impacts of a large housing project.

The 500-plus home development, called “The Heights at Red Mountain,” is to be built on the former Lewis and Clark Ranch.

West Richland is trying to buy the Tri-City Raceway near the proposed interchange from the Port of Kennewick for a new police station.

Gerry told port officials Tuesday they have little reason to keep the property if the interchange isn’t going to be built.

The city and many local agencies have pushed for a new interchange since 2000. That’s when the Benton-Franklin Council of Governments conducted a transportation study of the area.

Benton County, West Richland and other jurisdictions joined in, conducting studies and lending their support to a project they viewed as a big economic development win for the region.

The Federal Highway Administration has determined there isn’t enough traffic to justify constructing a new Interstate 82 interchange at Red Mountain, between Benton City and West Richland. Washington State Department of Transportation

State to pay $25 million

Their efforts were rewarded in 2015 when the Washington Legislature allocated almost $25 million to Red Mountain in Connecting Washington, the $16 billion package of gas tax-funded projects distributed across the state.

The state touted the new interchange as a way to relieve congestion at existing intersections and to support local economic development and give West Richland its first direct connection to the freeway. In short, the interchange would help Red Mountain “be all it could be.”

A 2015 project sheet said the interchange would support $900 million in economic activity in the first 20 years and could “potentially” add thousands of jobs in the area.

Momentum was in its favor. The first phase, a $4.5 million roundabout at Benton City, was complete in 2016. With the state willing to pay for the interchange, federal officials needed only to approve the new access point.

Not dead, just shelved

The project isn’t dead, said Troy Suing, assistant regional administrator for planning and program management in the Union Gap office of the Washington Department of Transportation.

It is shelved, but supporters are looking for new solutions to expected traffic issues.

Suing confirmed federal officials indicated at a recent meeting they would not approve the interchange.

“(The Federal Highway Administration) has a threshold for a certain level of traffic. Our analysis just indicated there’s not enough,” he said.

The federal agency’s media office did not return a call Wednesday about the decision. A spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, said his office would review the issue.

Benton County commissioners Shon Small, Jim Beaver and Jerome Delvin could not be reached Wednesday about what the loss of the interchange means to the county’s transportation vision for the area.

Suing and Gerry said the interchange may be off the table, but work will continue.

The project’s supporters will assess the growing traffic and transportation needs of West Richland, Benton City and the Red Mountain area with an eye toward improving existing systems.

Benton City roundabout
June 14, 2016 - State and local officials gather Monday to celebrate the opening of the $4.5 million roundabout in Benton City. It is at the intersection of highways 224 and 225 an was the first phase of a project that would have added a new Interstate 82 interchange at Red Mountain. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

The effort is young, but could involve public meetings in the future.

The West Richland mayor said the city wants to be careful to craft a plan that’s acceptable to federal, state and local partners and that could be funded with the Connecting Washington money.

“When we bring a plan forward, we are going to have done all of our homework,” he said.

Counting on freeway access

Red Mountain vineyards and wineries were counting on the interchange for the expected increase in traffic, said Tim Hightower, owner and winemaker of Hightower Cellars and president of the Red Mountain AVA Board.

Vineyards were planted on hundreds of Red Mountain acres once the Kennewick Irrigation District extended water to the area. As vines mature, it will take increasing numbers of trucks to cart off the fruit and deliver bins and other material to the area.

“”We’ve always looked at (the interchange) as being an important development,” he said.

The traffic circle at Highways 224 and 225 at Benton City improved traffic flow, but Hightower said the Red Mountain interchange is the preferred connection.

“I hope they come back to re-evaluate,” he said.

Carl Adrian, president and CEO of the Tri-City Industrial Development Council (TRIDEC), said it’s unfortunate the federal agency doesn’t see value in the interchange.

It would support the neighboring cities and Red Mountain and open up land for industrial development.

Drone Red Mountain interchange
Washington transportation officials are looking for alternative plans after federal highway officials decided Interstate 82 isn’t busy enough to justify the proposed $30 million Red Mountain interchange between Benton City and West Richland. Watch a video at: tricityherald.com/video Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Adrian said a hardware-related company considered the area for a distribution center several years ago. Red Mountain wasn’t chosen, but the interchange made it a viable candidate.

Without it, it’s a tougher sell, he said.

Adrian is hopeful the millions the state earmarked for Red Mountain will remain in the Tri-Cities instead of, as he put it, being swept up for some “stupid project” on the west side.

State Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, said the money won’t automatically be freed for other projects if the project isn’t funded. It would be up to the Legislature to determine the next step in the 2020-21 supplemental budget.

But there is a precedent for awarded funds to stay in the region where they were originally awarded.

“I will definitely be fighting to make sure the funds remain in the community,” Brown said.

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.