AUBURN — Route 4 will get a turning lane at Lake Shore Drive.
And, possibly, a pair of roundabouts.
The Androscoggin Transportation Resource Center, which is housed and staffed by the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments and is responsible for planning for that stretch of Route 4, voted Thursday to spend $500,000 to add a turning lane from Lake Shore Drive to about Roy's All-Steak Hamburgers and Golf Center, across from Blanchard Road.
Officials say the road is about 70 feet wide, enough to add a turning lane while keeping four traffic lanes and 6-foot shoulders.
Construction could start and end this fall.
"It was well-vetted between residents, the city, DOT engineers," Auburn City Manager Clinton Deschene said. "Everybody's had good chances to look at this, and it seems to be the most cost-effective, quickly implementable solution. I'd like to see the final plans — we don't have those yet — but the concept is spot-on."
The Androscoggin Transportation Resource Center also agreed to spend $300,000 on preliminary engineering and design work for a pair of Route 4 roundabouts. The first would be in the area of Fair and Martin streets, near the boat launch. The second would be in the area of Lake Shore Drive.
If that project moves forward, the speed limit on that stretch of road would be lowered.
It will likely take a year to finish the design work on the roundabouts. Officials would then have to find about $4 million — $2 million each — to pay for construction.
Officials say the turning lane is a short-term solution to the problems on Route 4. The roundabouts would be the long-term solution.
"(The turning lane) is going to go a long way to address the safety of the worst section of it," said Jennifer Williams, transportation director for the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments. "The future roundabouts will help a lot with some of the other problem areas."
Funding for the turning lane and the preliminary roundabout work will come 80 percent from the federal government, 10 percent from the state and 10 percent from Auburn.
Residents have long complained that the 55-mph, four-lane stretch of Route 4 from outer Center Street in Auburn to the Turner town line is dangerous, especially for traffic turning left. Experts say that danger exists in large part because turning drivers must stop in the left lane, which is also the road's passing lane. Drivers risk getting rear-ended as they sit waiting for southbound traffic to clear so they can turn.
There were 55 crashes in the area of Lake Shore Drive between 2003 and 2012. Of those, three caused incapacitating injuries.
Last August, a 5-year-old girl was seriously injured when the car she was riding in was rear-ended as it waited to turn left onto Lake Shore Drive. The crash brought new attention to the dangers of that road and residents began talking about it to anyone who would listen, including lawmakers, the ATRC and the Maine Department of Transportation.
Small changes, including an MDOT-installed sign with flashing lights, have since been made. But the changes planned by ATRC are by far the most significant.
"I am thankful and just extremely grateful that they fast-tracked this and made this of high importance and are looking to make Route 4 safer," said Tammie Willoughby, who must turn onto Lake Shore Drive every day to go home.
She has been serving as a kind of neighborhood representative at meetings about the road for the past year. She was pleased by ATRC's decision Thursday, and believes a turning lane will immediately help.
"It'll get us out of the left-hand lane, stopped in a passing lane trying to turn left," she said.
Although the proposal for roundabouts may surprise some, Deschene said road studies have recommended them in the past. He and others say traffic lights and narrowing of the road — ideas often raised by residents — could create more problems than they would solve, while roundabouts would encourage drivers to slow down and be more cautious.
"The roundabouts will become, and this is my layperson's perspective, good signals as people come into the city that you're no longer on a commuter-highway-type mindset, but you're about to enter a more urbanized downtown area," Deschene said. "It also won't happen with the aggravation of making you stop."
However, some drivers may have to be convinced that roundabouts are a good idea.
"I don't know that's going to work on a highway like that," said Harry Walker, who was severely injured in December 2011 when his Jeep was rear-ended as he tried to turn onto Lake Shore Drive to go home.
Although he reserved judgment on the proposed roundabouts, Walker lauded the plan for a turning lane.
"I think it's about time they did it," he said.
Officials next will finalize a design plan for the turning-lane changes. There will likely be an informational and public comment session on it in the coming months.
Although the turning lane could be finished this fall, it won't come soon enough for Amy Liberman, whose daughter, Danika DeMayo, was the 5-year-old severely injured last August.
Danika, now 6, is still dealing with the after-effects of the crash, including long-term memory problems.
"Even if they change (the road), I will never drive up there again," Liberman said.