By Bruce A. Smith
Although I was involved in a collision on Graham Hill that wrecked two vehicles out of the four involved, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) says that Meridian Ave / State Route 161 is not too dangerous.
“It’s not on the list,” said Steve Bennett, our regional engineer for WSDOT, in a recent phone call. Bennett’s statement reflected that fact that the frequency and severity of car crashes on Graham Hill are not sufficient to warrant any significant action by the state to make this roadway safer.
Yet personal experience and years of observation by this writer suggest otherwise. Here are the facts:
According to WSDOT records, and supported by Assistant Chief Tony Judd of the Graham Fire and Rescue Department, the stretch of Meridian that spans from 238th St in the north to 264th St in the south, had thirteen accidents in the 12-month period of October 2015 to October 2016.
Of those thirteen car crashes, six caused any injuries, but only one incident was reported as “serious.”
Additionally, this pattern seems to exist when records from 2013-2014 are reviewed. Nevertheless, the accident I was involved with on the evening of October 6, 2016 sent two people to Good Samaritan Hospital.
In my view, the prime cause of danger on Graham Hill is the lack of turning lanes. There are no provisions for people to make left-hand turns into the businesses atop Graham Hill, such as Karen Lucas’ Art Studio, from the southbound lanes, or into the Evergreen Presbyterian Church from the northbound lanes.
Other turning dangers also exist, such as folks needing to come to a near stop as they access their homes or sub-divisions, such as Columbia Crest that is just south of 252nd St. I have witnessed innumerable instances of screeching brakes and narrowly avoided crashes as drivers come over the crest of the hill and see a line of cars stopped as someone is turning into a driveway or access road.
Clearly, the current push by the Pierce County Planning and Land Services to require developers to install turning lanes into their newly built residential projects did not exist when hundreds of homes were built along the summit of Graham Hill.
WSDOT is not blind to these circumstances, though, and Bennett did claim that his agency is researching the traffic patterns on Graham Hill, in particular its speed limits. Bennett said that the State is reviewing the possibility of lowering the top speeds across the summit.
“It might be reduced to 50, or even 45 miles per hour,” he told the Mountain News. He also said that the state is reviewing the type of speed limit signs and their placement on Graham Hill.
When asked if the speed is reduced to 45 mph, would that also negate the need for climbing lanes, and thus provide roadway space to create the much needed turning lanes. Bennett demurred, and said that the creation of turning lanes could create other hazards, such as cars traveling in opposite directions and using the turns lane simultaneously, which could initiate huge problems.
Bennett is also mindful of the impacts of reducing speeds, and certainly taking away the climbing lanes.
“You have to remember that ten percent of the traffic over Graham Hill are trucks,” he said, and warned how frustrated drivers could create an even worse problem by trying to pass slow freight haulers.
Another issue that Bennett acknowledged is the limited visibility at the summit due to the contour of the hill, which creates blind spots for on-coming traffic who can’t see traffic on the other side of the crest.
“But this is a situation that exists throughout the state,” said Bennett. “Every country road has inherent dangers at the top of a hill. All I can say is that drivers need to be careful.”
However, Graham Hill is part of a heavily-used commuter corridor. State officials claim over half of residents in south Pierce County who are employed drive to work, either in Tacoma or Seattle. As a result, Meridian / SR 161 is one of the most-used roads, with the concomitant dangers of lots of cars driving at maximum speeds, and often in an aggressive manner. Hence, Graham Hill needs all the help it can get.
So, will the speed limit be lowered?
Bennett said that the state should conclude its research by early December, but as of this date no determination has been announced.