A humble roundabout at the entrance to Benton City is the first transportation project in Washington paid for by a new 11.9-cent gas tax.
State and local officials dedicated the $4.5 million roundabout at the intersection of highways 224 and 225 at the Interstate 82 interchange with a ceremonial ribbon-cutting, speeches, bottled water and baggies filled with fresh local cherries.
Humble though it may be, it gives Benton City something big to brag about: It is the first project completed under the $16 billion Connecting Washington transportation package. The 2015 Washington Legislature authorized the ambitious investment in transportation projects throughout the state.
Not coincidentally, the roundabout makes its debut on the eve of the second of two gas tax increases to pay for it and hundreds of other projects. The gas tax rises 4.9 cents July 1, following a 7-cent increase that took effect Aug. 1, 2015.
The roundabout is part of a $30 million Red Mountain improvement project that will deliver a new interchange on I-82 between Benton City and West Richland in a few years.
The roundabout is meant to upgrade the entrance to Benton City and to ease traffic congestion at the intersection of highways 224 and 225, which converge near a Conoco station.
The contractor, Rotschy Inc., opened it to traffic last week. Officials temporarily closed the westbound right turn lane Monday so that local dignitaries could cut a ceremonial, pre-perforated ribbon strung across the road.
Roundabouts really do work.
Roger Millar, Washington acting Secretary of Transportation
Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, was one of the authors of the transportation package and expressed relief that the program is delivering projects after so many years of planning.
“It means a lot to have this first one mostly under our belt,” he said.
The dedication gave state transportation officials an opportunity to talk up the transportation package, which will boost gas prices by 4.9 cents starting in July, as well as a chance to defend the department’s rising use of traffic circles in place of signals at intersections.
“Roundabouts really do work, said Roger Millar, Washington’s acting Secretary of Transportation. “They make traffic flow the way we want it to.”
Steptoe roundabout improvements coming
As an aside, the department is preparing to revise one of its earlier efforts, the roundabout at Columbia Park Trail and Steptoe Street in Richland. Its two-lane design with crisscrossing exit lanes has proven confusing to many and has led to numerous fender benders.
Moe Davari, project engineer for the region, said it will be retooled to limit Columbia Park Trail access to one lane in each direction.
Transportation planners increasingly choose roundabouts over signals because they reduce wait times and are less expensive to maintain in the long run.
Benton City’s roundabout is a straightforward affair. It is a single-lane circle designed to circulate traffic at the intersection of the two highways. Its fourth exit serves as the on-ramp to westbound I-82.
It replaces a two-way stop that led to notorious congestion.
Benton City Mayor Linda Lehman said the six months of construction were rough on local businesses because drivers avoided the construction zone, but it will pay off in improved traffic through town.
She’s thrilled Benton City boasts Connecting Washington’s first success.
“I’m happy to be a recipient,” she said.
The Benton City project was ready to go thanks to a federal grant that paid for planning and design. Connecting Washington provided about $3.2 million of the final cost.
The second phase of the Red Mountain improvements will deliver a new I-82 interchange to the east, between Benton City and West Richland.
That project will cost an estimated $25 million and must be justified to the Federal Highway Administration.
Washington’s argument: The new access point will improve emergency response times, winery access and economic conditions.
Construction is expected to begin in about three years.
Connecting Washington is providing money to build the new Duportail Bridge over the Yakima River and for various highway upgrade and maintenance projects.
Baffled by Roundabouts?
Check out the Washington Department of Transportation’s “How to drive a roundabout” website: www.wsdot.wa.gov/safety/roundabouts