Our Voice: Red Mountain interchange smart investment for Washington, Mid-Columbia

The state House Transportation Committee heard about a much-needed plan for the Mid-Columbia earlier this month.

The Red Mountain Transportation Project has been in the plans for a long time, but like many worthy projects, it still needs funding to make it a reality.

The project would put a new roundabout at the intersection of Highway 224 and Highway 225 at the choked entrance to Benton City off Interstate 82. Two stop signs would be eliminated, alleviating congestion and making a safer path for residents and visitors to Red Mountain.

The second phase of the project would create a new I-82 interchange and improved connection to Highway 224 east of Benton City. The new exit would improve access to the ever-expanding housing developments in West Richland as well as reduce emergency response times to the entire area. It would also provide additional access for tourists visiting the wineries of the Red Mountain American Viticulture Area, one of the most prized locations for vineyards in our state.

"One of the key things that separates this project from a lot of others is the economic impact it will have," said Troy Berglund of the Benton Rural Electric Association in his presentation to the transportation committee.

We've long advocated the economic and practical advantages of improved access to Red Mountain, an area that is a popular destination for wine tourists but a challenge to get to with any kind of ease or speed.

Berglund estimated the improvements would create $102 million in annual permanent payroll and $327 million in annual business and employee spending. An economic impact study shows the project would help create 1,900 construction jobs and 2,400 permanent jobs during the next 20 years.

The Legislature already has shown some love for the project with a $1 million appropriation toward the planning and pre-design stage and $375,000 to buy right of way for the roundabout.

But about $27.5 million more is needed to complete the two phases. That's big money in tough times, but if any transportation project in the Mid-Columbia warrants funding now, it's this one.

The path for new industry in the area would be paved by that new interchange, and the potential economic benefits are huge. An abundance of property awaits development and the wine and tourism industry needs infrastructure to make it more appealing to retailers, restaurants and other businesses.

Few among us would have predicted 20 years ago that the sleepy towns of Benton City and West Richland would be the next hot beds of tourism but the worldwide reputation for the vineyards on Red Mountain have changed all that.

We need to keep our economic base booming, and our wine and tourism industries are among the best formats to do that.

Making it easier for people to get there is a big advantage. And better serving the existing populations is important for our community's well-being too.

It's important that our state's leaders realize and support the project, which also will require federal approval. We hope the recent visit to Olympia by representatives of the Tri-Cities will move this project toward reality.