Our Voice: Red Mountain's future depends on state action

The projects designed to boost Red Mountain's renowned wine industry to the next level have yet to materialize.

Building the proposed Red Mountain interchange on Interstate 82; providing water, sewer and other infrastructure needed to spur development at the former Tri-City Raceway; and bringing Yakima River water to the mountain are essential building blocks.

The state's participation in all three initiatives is necessary for Red Mountain to move forward.

Much has been accomplished -- The Red Mountain American Viticultural Area, or AVA, was approved in 2001.

About 1,400 acres on Red Mountain are in vineyard, providing premium grapes to 16 wineries that are either operating or on the way.

Wines made from Red Mountain grapes have an international reputation for quality. Perhaps most importantly, there is a unified vision for the mountain, outlined in Red Mountain AVA Master Site Plan.

This unique wine region in West Richland's backyard is perfectly poised for takeoff, but realizing its potential depends on bureaucrats and lawmakers in Olympia.

Granted, state officials have much on their plate this year, but failure to exploit Red Mountain's untapped assets would be a costly mistake.

The state should approve changes to West Richland's growth management plan as soon as possible to allow the Port of Kennewick to pursue a wine-themed industrial park at the raceway.

The city's water and sewer lines already run to the site, but can't be used by the port without first amending West Richland's growth management plan.

There is the potential for about $77 million in investment and 1,031 jobs if the 93 acres are included in the city's urban growth boundary, according to a 2012 report by Ferdouse Oneza of Oneza & Associates of Seattle.

West Richland's application to expand its urban growth area in 2007 was denied, based on the fact that the Lewis & Clark Ranch within the city's urban growth area offered 8,000 acres for development under the master plan.

But the ranch has since changed hands and the owners plan to continue to farm the land indefinitely. The city is willing to pursue taking farmland out of its urban growth area in exchange for including land that can be developed.

It's a rational approach to development. Let's hope state officials recognize just how much sense it makes.

The Legislature also has opportunities to promote Red Mountain through funding for an interchange and providing a no-interest loan that would help bring new water to the AVA.

The Red Mountain interchange project involves building a roundabout at the Benton City exit of Interstate 82 and a new interchange connecting West Richland and the Red Mountain area to the highway.

The state's two-year transportation budget, passed near the end of the regular session, included $870,000 for design and right of way work for the project.

It's an indication that lawmakers understand the need to provide better access to West Richland and Red Mountain, but more is needed.

State Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, requested $5 million, which would have paid for the first phase of the project, including the Benton City roundabout.

But completing the entire project, including the new interchange, is expected to cost almost $30 million.

Hope still remains to secure $27.5 million for the work, but that would require the Legislature to pass a 10-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax. Such a tax increase also would require voter approval unless it gets two-thirds approval by the Legislature.

We hope the tax gets a careful look, and not the knee-jerk opposition that new tax proposals usually incur. Our state's economy depends on good roads that connect producers to worldwide markets.

The other legislative issue for Red Mountain also involves a state investment, and it's vital to fully exploiting the area's potential. Besides, it's a loan that landowners ultimately repay.

KID is preparing to start construction on a $20.2 million project that would bring river water to all 1,785 acres in the AVA by summer 2014, about a year earlier than originally anticipated. But that schedule depends on a $10 million no-interest loan from the state.

KID already received half the money, but the second $5 million was only approved by the Senate and not the House.

The House should agree to the loan when the two sides hammer out differences.

Putting up half the money then abruptly abandoning a project sounds a lot more like the other Washington. We expect better from our state lawmakers.