Ever Evolving Meridian Avenue on South Hill
by Carl Vest
Meridian Avenue, the north-south road that bisects South Hill, is over a century old. It was first built in the 1890s. The initial length was about ten miles, from the Puyallup City line in the north to roughly present day 160th Street in the south. During this early period the road was little more than a wide, muddy path. Gradually its length was extended and eventually became State Route 161. The surface was improved from time-to-time, first with gravel and later with asphalt. Early pavement was only on the east side to provide a smooth surface for transporting farm produce to market. The road served the public satisfactorily as a farm to market path until well after World War II. Since the 1960s, however, Meridian has been the focus of criticism, primarily because of congestion, overuse, and a lack of capacity.
After World War II extensive developments began on the Hill. One contributing factor was the construction of State Route 512. From 1940 to the mid-1970s, the number of households on South Hill grew by about 150 percent. Developers responded to this influx by building more and more housing tracts. Unfortunately, job opportunities did not increase in proportion to the influx of people. As a result many, many workers were forced to travel the existing roads to employment in Tacoma, Seattle, and elsewhere.
It was in the 1970s that problems with Meridian began to be openly articulated and discussed. In addition to traffic congestion, local citizens were starting to complain about strip malls, comparing areas alongside Meridian to those at Sixth Avenue in Tacoma and South Tacoma Way. Unfortunately, neither state nor local governments had planned for this degree of expansion and so funds had not been allocated to make Meridian a reasonable thoroughfare. It was in 1978, for example, that the State Highway Department acknowledged that the traffic volume on Meridian was two and a half times its capacity. It was also declared that a widening was not in any plan for the next several years.
Meridian continued to be an overcrowded two lane road throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. At various times during that period various citizen groups tried to get the road improved. Some had a smidgen of success, such as the adding of turn lanes and the like. In the late 1990s this condition changed when the state legislative delegation from South Hill was successful in convincing state budget writers to make provisions for state funds for the construction of Meridian to its present configuration.
During the development of the South Hill Community Plan an attempt was made to create alternatives around South Hill for those road users living to the south that used it just for commuting. Also, a scheme was debated to widen Meridian for a light rail line to provide commuter services. Both proposals failed to make the final design.
Carl Vest, PhD, is a founding member and Research Director for the South Hill Historical Society.